A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Getting My Head Examined

I had left Catonsville assured of my sanity and of my place in the universe. As I drove home I had no such self-assurance. I felt crazy. I felt stark raving mad. Less than two hours with Jay Jordan had served to validate every abhorrent thought I'd ever had about myself. How sane can any man be when his own parents hated him, not to mention I hated them right back for it. The difference being I had done nothing to get myself into that situation and they had everything to do with it. They had a child simply because they had the equipment to do so. There wasn't one other reason that gave them the right to bring someone in to the world to torment.

To me, they had released me of any and all responsibility in the matter. It relieved me of none of the guilt I felt for feeling the way I did about them. It also raised questions about my own adult life, and for that I was totally responsible. The one thing I couldn't be too clear about was how I got from my less than rewarding childhood to being a parent in charge of my own little responsibilities, and would those responsibilities feel the same way about me one day?

It was dark and the ride seemed twice as long going back. I couldn't stop thinking about my mother. I still didn't remember much about dear old dad. I didn't even have a picture of him. I'd pretty much left my past behind me by the time I met Kathy. She didn't meet my mother until after Amy was born, and we'd waited four years after we were married to start having kids. By that time Kathy knew all about my childhood and she respected my doubts about my parenting skills. We could have had an abortion if I'd said the word, but by then, we were so well adjusted to one another, I was sure we'd be successful parents.

Then, dear old mom showed up. Kathy had said she couldn't be all that bad, and that I simply wasn't able to see her good side. Mother did call before her arrival. Two hours before, saying,

"Yes, Tommy, it's your mother. I'm going to be in your neighborhood this afternoon and was wondering if I could stop over for a few moments?"

"Mother! Ah, yes, I guess so. We live on…."

"I know where it is. I'll be by at three."

I knew my mother had married some one who was financially secure. I'd heard drips and drabs from different sources while I was at college. I knew she no longer lived in the city and had moved to a well to do suburb. It never occurred to me to look her up.

"Good afternoon," she had said when Kathy opened the door for her.

"Good afternoon. Won't you come in. I've been hoping to meet you," she said, all smiles.

"Yes, I'd sure. Tommy, could I see my grand children? We don't have long and I thought they should know their grandmother."

"Tom Jr. is playing out back. I'll get him," she said.

"Tommy Jr.? That's not much of a surprise," mom said, as though I'd named my son the Marquees Desaude.

"Amy stood by Kathy's leg, half hidden. Mother's attempt to tempt her away was for not. Tom Jr. leaped into my arms saying,

"Whose she?"

"Your grandmother," I said.

"We related to her," he asked in his precocious way.

I bit my tongue before speaking.

"Yes, this is my mother," I said. "Like Kathy's mom is Nana."

"Oh, she's another Nana?"

"Not quite," I said. "She's nothing like Nana."

"Nana?" Mother said, "How quaint. You can call me Francine."

"Grandmother Francine," I insisted.

"It makes me sound rather ancient, don't you think," she said.

"It's relative, mother," I said, unable to hide my contempt.

"Yes, I'm sure."

"We were about to have lunch, mother. Wouldn't you like to bring the gentlemen that brought you in for a bite to eat," I said, knowing she'd want to flee that scene.

"No, Tommy. We were on our way to a club we enjoy. We only have a few minutes. Perhaps another time. I'll call you," she said, turning to leave, but waiting for Kathy to open the door.

"That would be interesting. Do let me know and I'll stock the fridge with beer so you feel at home," I said, not letting her get away without sticking it to her at least once.

"Yes, I'm sure I will. Nice meeting you, ah, ah….. I'm sorry, I forgot your name," my mother said with no attempt at sincerity.

"Mrs. Thomas Brittle," Kathy said. "Your son's wife. You do remember him don't you?"

Kathy was a genuine nice person. Her response to my mother was about the unkindest thing I'd ever heard her say. I didn't need to tell her, "I told you so." I did laugh as soon as she closed the door behind my departing mother.

Kathy looked at me and said, "If anyone had told me she could have been as obnoxious as you said she was, I'd have called them a liar. No one could be that obnoxious, except for that woman. Who the hell does she think she is?"

"Your mother-in-law," I said, and Kathy fumed more, not because of what I said, because she knew it was so.

Now I had to deal with the fact I was my mother without the Bud. I was remote, distant, and felt no overwhelming love for my children. I did my best to see that their basic needs were taken care of and to make sure they had enough luxury not to feel deprived, and they had far more than I ever had. I am sure my mother said the same thing about me.

The one thing I couldn't provide them with was the loving father they deserved. I had previously felt some guilt about it but I was able to gain some solace by telling myself that it was all part of the way I made a living. A writer must disconnect and be able to isolate himself in order to ply his craft. It was all part of me keeping my world in order, only it had never really been in order. I had always been afraid that I was my mother, and now Jay Jordan had made it clear that I was.

When the truth was told, Kathy had mostly raised the kids by herself, but I was in the house. I hadn't died some unknown quantity with testicles, and I hadn't left them alone after reproducing my species. Their mother wasn't a drunk. You see, they had all the advantages. They had far more than I ever had. I thought they were probably better off without me being too involved in their lives. They had turned out to be good kids.

I felt awkward when it came to doing something alone with them, especially when it came to Tom Jr. For some reason I could never warm up to him, say the things I wish my father had said to me. I didn't know what to say, and so I said nothing. I thought of things I should say to him to make him feel better about himself, but they were always left unsaid.

In that respect I was a failure as a father. Amy had her mother and her mother was an excellent roll model. Tom Jr. only had me, and I was following in my father's footsteps. I had failed him as my father had failed me. I had no idea how to raise a child. Would he raise his kids with the same remoteness? Maybe it wasn't too late to give him the father he deserved. Of course it was. He was fifteen and he'd found his own way to deal with his life, girls, and not worry much about the fact that his old man was stuck up under the stairs where he lived, while his family moved around him.

Tom Jr. had settled for less than a real father. It wouldn't be his fault if he failed when it came to parenting. His father never acted like he wanted him, acting more like he was in the way, seldom speaking to him when there wasn't some admonition attached to the words. I wanted to say the right things. I never knew what they were.

Perhaps he would find a woman as good as the woman I had found. If I was a lousy father my kids hit the jackpot with their mother. She knew her children. She knew what to say to them and when she should say it. She knew what they wanted and saw that they got it if it was possible. She was there for them and I suppose a half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

What kind of father did they have? What kind of human being was I, traipsing around town, looking for a boy that had nothing to do with me or my life. Risking everything to satisfy some stupid obsession, which didn't make any sense to anyone, including me. Why was it happening now? I had finally had some success, something I could use to explain all the time I spent under the stairs.

"You see, I am a writer. You see, I was writing. You see, it's okay for me to hide under the stairs."

But what was it I was hiding from? What was I searching for? Or maybe I was just crazy?

I sat in my car after placing it in the garage. My head swirled with the same questions. There were no answers. I don't recall ever feeling more confused about who I was. I wanted to go back into my house and into my study, closing the door behind me, never coming out again. I finally got up enough energy to face my wife.

"Hi, dear. You took a lot longer than I thought it would take. How was it?" She asked. "Tea?"

"Yeah, tea would be nice. I don't know how it went."

"Did you like Mr. Jordan? Was he nice? What did you talk about?"

"My mother," I said, disgusted by the truth. "We ended up talking about my god damn mother."

"Oh my God, that pretty much explains it," she said, handing me a steaming cup of tea. "Let it cool, Thomas."

"Explains what?" I snapped, expecting some criticism and feeling bad about putting her through this.

"You look like you were road hard and put away wet. And don't snap at me. I'm trying to help you," she said.

"I know, Kathy. You are the greatest. It's just that I'm forty three years old and I'm told I need a shrink and he wants to know about what my mother was like. How do you suppose it makes me feel?" I said, feeling glum.

"Thomas Brittle, I have sat still and let you do things your way. I'm forty-five, and when I met you, I said, there is someone worth loving. I've never once regretted loving you. You are the kindest most gentle man I've ever had the pleasure to known. The fact that you are my husband doesn't hurt you any on that account. I don't care about your quirks or your foibles, what I care about is you are a man that would never purposely harm another person. That's loveable, dear. That is admirable. I've never wanted you any way but the way you are."

"I'm not much of a father. My kids are going to hate me, you know?" I said, glummer.

"Your kids are your kids. If they choose to hate you for the qualities I love you for, they may as well hate me as well. You don't shower them with affection, Thomas, but you love them and you don't abuse them," she said, glowing as she spoke.

"You trying to make me feel better?"

"I'm your wife, aren't I? Of course I'm trying to make you feel better. I know how you get when it comes to anything involving your mother. That hasn't changed in twenty-five years. Being able to make you feel better while telling you the truth is okay too, dear."

"After all these years, why can't I just say I got a bum deal when it came to parents and leave it at that? Why do I have to relieve something I hated so much. Why doesn't it just leave me alone?" I said. "She died for gods sake. It's the only decent thing she ever did."

"Apparently you've got some work to do. Did you talk about the boy?" She asked, hitting it head on.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! We talked about the boy and then we talked about my mother. What's one got to do with the other?" I asked.

"I'm not your psychiatrist, dear. Perhaps you should ask Mr. Jordan," she said, as Tom Jr. bounced into the room.

"Hey, Pop, who's crazy?"

"None of your business. What have I told you about jumping on the furniture."

"Sorry, dad," he said, after dropping down on the couch beside his mother.

"How did your day go, Tommy?" I forced myself to ask.

"Me? Fine? What did I do?" He asked, looking around the room for some evidence.

"You feeling guilty, Tommy?" Kathy asked, putting her hand on his arm.

"Who me? I'm guiltless, mom, absolutely guiltless. I don't like anything or anybody. Doesn't leave much room to get into trouble. Who's crazy," Tommy asked.

"Just your old man," I said.

"That's not a news flash, is it," he said, looking at his mother.

"You want to add homeless to your other list, Tommy?" Kathy said.

"Who me? I didn't say anything. Dad's cool. No one could confuse him with a crazy man. We're all healthy here. No craziness at my house. I better go do my homework before I get my other foot in my mouth, which reminds me, I need a new pair of tennis shoes, Pop."

"They look fine to me," I said, wishing I had such shoes when I was in school. "Didn't we just buy you shoes when school started?"

"Too small. I'm getting ingrown toenails. My gym teacher says its because my feet are too big for my shoes. It's okay though if it's going to cause anyone any craziness. Ingrown toenails ain't all that bad after you get used to the pain and the blood. They kind of grow on you after awhile. These are fine. Nice color. Maybe I can cut holes for my toes, huh? Start a new fad. I don't know what they'll do about the odor though."

"We'll go to get you a new pair of tennis shoes Saturday," I said.

"We as in…."

"You and the mouse in your pocket. You and I. We'll go to the mall and maybe take in a show. Don't you have homework," I said.

"Just getting to that, Pops. Glad you reminded me. Nice chatting with you folks. Have a nice evening," he said, bouncing back out of the room.

"He is his father's son," Kathy said, watching Tom Jr. exit.

"Don't wish that on him. Isn't it bad enough your husband is crazy?"

"Quit it, Thomas. You are the sanest man I know. How else could you have lived with it for all these years without ever bending a little to it," she said.

"What?" I asked.

"Your mother. How she treated you. My God, when she showed up to see the kids, I wanted to yank her away and hide her from the old shrew. I wasn't about to let her do to my kids what she did to you. Good thing she didn't want them on visits," Kathy said, spitting out the words.

"That's my mother you're talking about," I said in mock horror.

"Sorriest excuse of motherhood I've ever seen. I hated her more than you did, Thomas," she said, unable to hide her disdain. "That first day, when I realized you hadn't exaggerated, I should have kicked her in the butt as she left, you know, knocked her down the front steps so she knew I didn't approve of her."

"I never knew you read her so well. She was on her good behavior, you know. You never let on to me. I thought you liked each other."

"How could I give her the satisfaction. I knew what she was. She knew I knew, Thomas. She looked right through me. I never hated anyone before I met her, but I didn't hate her for that day."

"My mother had that affect on people. I'm sorry you had to put up with her even for a minute," I said.

"I didn't. We only saw her a handful of times. She came to approve of our progeny. How dare she judge them like cattle! That was the unkindest woman I've ever been near."

"I've been married to you for over twenty years, Kathy. I've never once heard you so much as say an unkind word about another human being," I said.

"I've lived with you a lot longer than that, dear, and I cursed your mother every day. Cursed what she did to you. It was beyond abuse if it was anything like you described, and I think it was. I could never forgive her for hurting you," she said, staring blankly at the fireplace. "I must admit I thought you exaggerated it. Then I met her. I guess I wanted her to have changed for your benefit. She wasn't going to get a shot at my kids."

"I'm sorry you had to deal with her," I said, sitting beside her on the couch and taking her hand.

It had already been a long hard day and I couldn't take any more body blows. I never talked about my mother or my childhood but in my silence Kathy knew. Once she met my mother she never questioned my simple references about her were accurate. Forever with forgiveness in her heart she could not find it in that heart to forgive the woman that gave her husband life and then caused him pain. She didn't want to have those feeling about someone, but she did.

I sipped my tea and excused myself to return to my study to stare at the accoutrements of my trade while replaying the events of my day. I would see Dr. Jordan Thursday. He scheduled me at the end of his day so we could continue what we had started. I wasn't sure I wanted to face the demons that he was trying to locate inside of me. If I faced them I couldn't be sure they wouldn't win. I couldn't even admit them to myself until now. The anger and fear that boiled inside me had never been so close to the surface. I thought I'd won years ago, but I'd only succeeded in avoiding the final battle.

Kathy was asleep when I went up to the bedroom. I slid into my bed without undressing. I felt like a beaten man. Work wasn't possible with so much rotating around inside my brain. I was restless and found it unusually difficult to find sleep. Then came a stage of sleep I'm not very familiar with.

Most days I hammered the keys late into the evening, afterward sitting out and taking tea with Kathy while the unwinding kicked in and my rushing brain put on the brakes. By the time I reached my bed I would collapse into a fast deep sleep. I'd wake in a fog after daylight broke through into the bedroom, laying for a time to sort through whatever might be going through my brain, usually plots or characters speaking to me.

I wasn't awake, resting just on the edge, hearing the occasional car passing and a dog barking in the distance. Kathy turned over in her sleep. I could not feel my bed or my pillows, but I knew that I wasn't sleeping in the conventional sense. It made me a angry because I was wasting precious time in this lingering state of mind. I kept trying to get over the hump but wasn't aware I ever did.

"Thomas! Thomas! Wake up! You're having a nightmare," Kathy's words broke through to me like they'd been trying to reach me for some time.

Her voice sounding distant at first and my heart was raging in my chest as my brain grabbed a hold of the real world. I wasn't sure where I was. At first I didn't know her in my panic to escape some unknown terror. I knew her voice. Shaking me awake she seemed alarmed by something.

"What's wrong?" I asked, clearing my throat while trying to see her through my haze.

"You're having a nightmare. You were yelling. You're soaked, Thomas. You need to get out of those clothes and take a shower," she said, unbuttoning my shirt. "I'll change the bed. Thomas, I think you've wet yourself."

"My brain told me I was on fire. There were flames all around me and this swooshing sound like it was traveling across the room, consuming everything. I was burning up, Kathy. I could feel my skin burning. I've never had a nightmare like that," I said. "It wasn't a dream. I was on fire."

I checked my arms and legs as she undressed me. I was sure I would find some blistering, burns, but there were none.

"You'd better take a shower," she said.

"Yes, I will. I'm sorry I woke you."

"It's okay, dear. I'm going to go back to bed if you're okay now. Do you want me to sit up?"

"No," I said. "You go back to sleep."

"You okay, Pop. What's all the noise? I thought the roof was falling down," Tom Jr. said as he leaned on the door.

"No! Just a nightmare, son. You go back to bed," I said.

"Pops, you better stop drinking whatever it is you're drinking.

"What's wrong," Amy's voice said from the hall.

"Nothing, angel. You go back to bed. I don't have my clothes on so don't come in, angel."

"Go back and get your beauty sleep, sis," Tom Jr. said, scooting Amy back from the door.

I leaned with my arm on the wall up under the shower head, the water cascading down over my back. I could see trees and fire in great balls rising up from the floor of a forest. My eyes jerked open as I once again felt the intense heat. I turned off the hot water, standing under the cold for a long time.

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