My mother comes to stay with us once a week because for the last eight months she's been having an affair with Eddie Royce, our city councilman. Wednesdays she drives to Mandeville from Lumberton in time to have an early dinner with my husband Howard and me. Howard's reserved, or tries to be, because he's fond of my father and not comfortable harboring my mother under these circumstances. She's all charm with him, flirty and interested in what he's doing, and when she's like this she's hard to resist. She's lost ten pounds, and tonight at dinner she asks Howard if he notices, and when he says, yes, she explains that's why she's picking at her food, not because it isn't delicious. "There is room for one bite of dessert," she says, reaching for his plate with her fork, and he pushes his pie over to share. She's meeting Eddie at 6:30 and I ask Howard if he'll do the dishes so we can get across the Causeway a little early, and he says, "Sure," but doesn't look too happy about it.
My mother and I get into the car and drive across the lake to New Orleans where for the last year and a half we've been working toward apprenticeship degrees in Culinary Arts at Delgado Community College. My mother is a wonderful cook and our dream is to open a restaurant; she's in the kitchen, and I'm out front running the room. We've found a tiny cottage on the edge of the warehouse district, and the act of sale is in a couple of weeks. My dad's an accountant and he's found the financing, and Howard's going to help out with some of the renovation. It's a family project, but I've been trying to slow things down because I don't know where this affair is going. Right now Mom couldn't crack an egg. Last week I suggested that maybe we should look around a little more, but my dad had already made the down payment. Everything's sailing through without a hitch. Dad doesn't know about Eddie and he's happy "his girls" are doing this restaurant together.
On the Causeway my mother fidgets in her seat. We're in my Miata and her perfume is overpowering. The first semester she actually went to the classes with me, pre-Eddie, and driving across the lake the talk was all restaurant. She came up with the name Bijou and I like it, although I know a poodle with that name. Tonight I try to get her on track again, to see if we can figure out the timetable, but it's hard to pull her away from Eddie talk. She spares no detail, chatters like a teenager about how Eddie loves to touch her hair so now she only blows it dry and doesn't spray it anymore. Last week she pulled an audiocassette from her purse and pushed it into the player in my car. Eddie had recorded himself doing ordinary things for her, like reading his morning paper, or describing what he saw out the car window on his way to a meeting. Every ten minutes or so he would say, "I love you, Gail," out of nowhere, and she had punched the buttons and fast-forwarded, looking for those places, touching the hollow of her neck when she found them. He made the tape to keep her company on her drive back to Lumberton the next day. She also played me part of one she'd made for him of herself whisper-singing Peggy Lee songs, "There's A Small Hotel", and "It Never Entered My Mind." I'd like a copy. I remember that voice lullabying me to sleep, and how she'd put her arms around my dad's neck and sing in his ear until he brushed her away like a moth. My parents used to look happy. Their problems were the kind everyone's parents seemed to have, like bill paying and jealous moments, stuff that blew over, but now that I'm married I understand what can happen over time, how you run out of new material and repeat yourself, zone out of your own thoughts because they're kind of dull, and so what? You go to bed at night and say, was your day any good, dear, mine was fine and let's hope tomorrow is like today, and months go by and you lose sight of the fact that you're way out of range, a hundred miles from thrilling.
She says she's in love again at fifty-seven, and she's a little embarrassed about it, but can't help herself. I usually enjoy when she's acting like a middle-aged version of me at twenty, full of happy energy, always ready to change plans, go with the moment. Tonight, though, she's antsy and I want to slap her and tell her to get over it. I'd like to ride quiet because I have my own problems. I'm feeling bad because I forgot to kiss Howard goodbye on the way out the door, and I see him bent over the dishwasher, moving water glasses to fit mugs. Mom tells me Eddie and his wife are fighting about this addition they're putting on their house, and she's railing against the wife, completely on Eddie's side. I've seen this intensity off and on my whole life. When I was a teenager, she and my dad gave me constant trouble about spending too much time away from home. I loved staying at my friend Betty's, because her parents left us alone to talk all night and sleep 'til noon. And I loved Joey Vidacovich, a slide guitarist who played in local clubs. For three years, they ragged on me about how pathetic I must look to people, sitting there all those nights waiting for him to finish. I figured my dad was jealous, so I tried to confide in my mom, woman to woman, about how much I liked watching Joey play, but she and my dad were this united front. She didn't want to hear about the dark rooms and my table up front, how his eyes found me, glowing and warm, and pushed me back in my chair.
I'm dropping my mom off to meet Eddie at a bar called Sweet Williams, where politicians take their girlfriends. She's checking her lipstick for the fifth time, smoothing powder around her mouth.
"Goddamn lines," she says. "Do you like my perfume?"
She's lovely and ridiculous. Her hair's cut short and she has on black pants and a shiny red blouse tucked in to show her flat stomach, a pretty silver pin Eddie bought her. She wears the skinny bracelets Dad gave her for Christmas. As they slip up and down her arm, they make a soft chanking noise.
"What are we learning in school?" she finally says, settling back into her seat.
"Purchasing, Requisitioning and Storage Techniques," I say. I turn on talk radio and Dr. Laura is trashing some poor woman who should wake up and smell the coffee.
My mom says, "Fuck her," and dials around for music.
"How's Dad?" I ask.
She looks at me and pats my leg like I should wise up. My father's had a girlfriend for three years. Her name's Lily and she's fifteen years younger than I amtwenty-two. She works in his office and meets him in the morning sometimes to walk around the practice track at Lumberton High School. These walks are discreet, careful, like neighbors bumping into each other, but he also takes her on NASCAR race weekends, overnighters. I guess he thinks with all those cars roaring around the track no one notices this old guy and his baby girlfriend.
"You want to meet Eddie, tonight?" my mom says. I'm watching the concrete railing shoot by on the Causeway.
"Sure," I say. I've seen Eddie in town meetings on cable access. I like the crumminess of Channel 10 because after you watch it, real life seems prettier, like running with leg weights and then taking them off. You think you could jump an eight-foot wall. On TV, Eddie looks like somebody on an old game show. You Bet Your Life. He's always behind a long desk with his nameplate in front, and you can't imagine he's someone's boyfriend. Howard watches to see how smart he is and compares him to my dad.
Mom looks at her fingers and stares at the light bronze polish she's chosen for this week. "I wish age did not go right into your fingers," she says. "I used to have such pretty hands." She gives me her wedding ring to hold until the drive home and I stack it on top of my two rings.
Delgado is the place in New Orleans to learn trades. Mom and I are going at this slow, three hours a semester. The semester she took with me we completed "Cooking and Seasoning Methods." The last two semesters I've been alone. The class is four hours long, and I take good notes and go from there to Kinko's to get a set made for her. Usually on the drive home, she's melancholy because she won't see Eddie for another week, and I tell her about the other students and the professor's jokes, dumb anecdotes so she feels included. The class is a mix of people who do every kind of thing for a living, but we all envision having our own places. There's a blonde CPA named Joan, Clyde the lawn guy, Patty the schoolteacher, and short, frizzy-headed Bob the attorney who sits beside me. Our instructor is a young guy named Frank and tonight he's showing us how to make schedules for the back of the house: prep people, sous chefs, bus boys, dishwashers, and who needs to report first, second, third.
Bob leans over and puts his hand on my desk. "Wanna get drinks after class? A few of us are going."
I say sure. My mom and Eddie are at dinner and then the Airport Hilton, and I have plenty of time. Some nights I just drive around after class, trying to see the world in some new way. Sometimes it works.
We head over to Liuzza's, the neighborhood bar across the street from school where they pour cold beer into frosted goblets and make thin, perfect hamburgers topped with Chiclet-sized bits of fried onion. I'm hungry. Most classes we cook stuff and eat the samples, but tonight was all paperwork.
We're waiting for food when Bob leans over and says, "I hate the law."
"You're not alone, Bob." I say.
He says, "I'm a good lawyer, but it's boring. I want to open a steakhouse with a short menu: steak, oniony hash browns kind of burned at the edges, Creole tomatoes, broccoli, and gallons of crabmeat hollandaise."
"You can fill my bathtub with hollandaise," I say. "My mom and I are going to open a bistro kind of place. Pommes frites, steaks pounded thin with pepper, grilled asparagus."
"Cassoulet," he says. Pieces of frost are floating in my beer and I take a sip. It's perfectly cold.
Our teacher, Frank, is at the end of the table and Joan is leaning into his shoulder, asking him about food costs and how you figure out what to charge on the menu. She's in this for the money. Patty and Clyde have decided to go into business together, open a seafood place called Amberjack's, and he's drawing logos on a napkin. My cell phone rings. It's Howard.
"Your dad just called, Beck. I don't know why I have to lie to him."
I can't hear Howard in the restaurant so I go outside and stand by the front door. "What's wrong? The truth isn't going to do any good tonight. Tell him class ran late and we're at Liuzza's."
"When's your mom gonna be ready?"
I look at my watch. "Eddie's bringing her to the toll plaza in an hour."
"Your dad wants her to give him a quick call, he's looking for some piece of paper."
"Tell him our phone's are off, we're not answering."
"Is this really my problem, dear?"
Bob is watching me and I give him a little wave. He holds up my empty glass, raises his eyebrows, and I nod sure. He signals the waitress for two more beers. I call my mom on her cell phone but that irritating recording comes on.
"What's up?" Bob says, when I sit back down.
"My missing mother."
"I remember her from last year. Did she give up on school?"
"I hope not, or I'm gonna be asking you for a job." I offer him my fries and he puts my plate on top of his and pours on ketchup. "When you're done with those, want to take a ride?" I say.
We pour our beers into "go" cups and get into the Miata. I put the top down and turn the heater on because it's March and chilly, and we head for the Hilton. The Interstate is almost empty, sleek dark lanes, perfect painted lines, phosphorescent streetlights. The air whips my hair around. I love this car, and driving fast.
"Where we headed?" Bob says. He puts his hand on my leg.
"Probably not there," I say, shifting into fifth.
He pulls the hand, mock burned. The engine smoothes out and we speed by the exitsMetairie Road, Causeway, Clearview, Veterans, Power. We get off on Williams and I slow down so Bob can feel the drama of this part, the high ramp that takes you fifty feet above surface streets before sweeping left, revealing the wide, low terminal on your right, and the tiny runway lights, white dots in the night sky that aren't stars but airplanes spaced minutes apart, heavy graceful things, lowering, lowering, wheels touching land, engines rudely slammed into reverse. Since I was a kid, I've always hated going to the airport just to deliver and fetch. I'm always ready to fly. I point at the airport, say "Pretty."
"It's night," he says. "What's not pretty?"
"Hey. You pouting? You sound like you're pouting."
"Not me. I'm a Gold Medallion member with Delta. I get free drinks in the Crown Room, Express Check In, lots of treats."
I laugh and sip my beer. "You can take me sometime," I say.
The speed limit's only thirty-five on the access road. I downshift and watch the speedometer because I've had tickets here twice. I say, "We could be in Florence by 9 a.m., hazelnut gelato for breakfast, walk along the river."
"We could," Bob says.
"I could sing you O Sole Mio. My husband would call my cell phone, across the ocean, but he would never know I was in Florence with you."
Bob puts his hand over mine. "Unless somebody shouted in Italiana cab driver, a woman named Sophia, a guy in a gondola."
"Got no gondolas in Florence," I say.
"Damn, " he says.
The Airport Hilton is across from the arrival terminal and I park under the portico. A guy comes out to help with bags and I wave him off.
"What's this?" Bob says.
"My mom's here," I say.
Bob nods and says, "Nice."
We go into the lobby and wake up the desk clerk. I give my mother's aliasBill Fold.
The kid on duty says, "Yeah, right."
Bob nudges me. "Can you call the room?" I say.
The phone rings and rings and I ask him to try again, but there's no answer. "Maybe he's taking a shower," the kid says.
"Maybe," I say.
I try her cell phone again and this time she answers. There's loud music in the background, and people singing, "Who Let the Dogs Out."
"Where are you, Mother? Dad's looking for you."
"I'm on Bourbon Street. It's so crowded here, everyone having fun. Listen to it," she says, and I hear laughter and yelling through her phone. "You walk down the street in the middle of all the people like this and you can get lost for awhile."
"Will you be at the toll plaza?" My mother has a curfew and I feel stupid reminding her.
"Hey, Beck, meet us at Pat O'Brien's piano bar. How about it?""
Bob's stepping in close, trying to listen and I poke him in the shoulder. "I have a friend from class with me. Remember Bob?"
"Steak restaurant Bob? Bring him," she says.
Howard is clicking in, his number's flashing in the window of my phone. "Yes? I found her. We'll be late." I have a mother alibi, but Howard hangs up quick. He's disgusted with me.
Bob grabs my phone and looks at the dial pad. "Man, how many features does this thing have?"
We leave the Hilton and turn east, back on the Interstate, aiming for the Superdome and downtown skyscrapers. Some of the buildings are lit pale orange; the Hibernia Bank tower is still washed in purple light from Mardi Gras.
I look over at Bob. He's got wind in his face like sun on a zinnia, and he's endearing sitting there like that.
"Do you want to see our restaurant?" I say, and I exit on St. Charles Avenue. Calliope Street is under the Mississippi River Bridge. I stop in front of the cottage and get out. "Come on."
"You're buying this?" Bob says.
"Almost done," I say. "It needs work."
Bob walks around the back and hollers to me about the banana trees. "They're huge," he yells. I hear his feet back there, running back and forth, scraping the concrete. "They're like King Kong deals. Amazing."
I know this. The banana trees are about thirty stories high, with leaves as big as wings on a biplane.
"I have the keys," I say, as he comes around the side of the building. I walk him up the front steps and open the door. I show him the two small dining rooms and where we'll expand the kitchen.
"It's tiny. How many does it seat?" he says.
"Four four-tops. Two eight-tops. Eight two-tops."
"Damn, Bob, you sure you're just good at law?"
He is tapping on walls, touching the fireplace mantle, looking in the fireplace. "Does this work?"
"It needs to be chimney-sweeped." I stand at the windows and hook the shutters closed.
"Everything's in the Yellow Pages," he says, and he walks up behind me and puts his arms around my waist, kisses the back of my neck. I settle against him for a moment, then say, "We've got to find Mother."
We close up and get into my car, head east on the Interstate, exit at Orleans and turn left on Rampart. The back of the Quarter is quiet. This is the residential side and it's ten o' clock, the end of the day for these people in front of their cottages, hosing down stoops, spraying plants, and smoking cigarettes.
We park at Solari's garage and a black guy takes the keys, shoves a ticket under my windshield and peels off in my car to get it out of the way. Royal Street is filled with people walking, drinks in their hands. We turn on St. Peter and there's a line outside of Pat O's halfway down the block. Mostly college kids, but Bob and I talk to the bouncer and tell him we're meeting my mother, so he lets us in.
Mom and Eddie are sitting at the piano bar. They're drinking hurricanes and their glasses are in special holders that have been built into the top of this huge grand piano. The singer is doing funny arrangements of college fight songs while people roar the words.
I walk up to them, meet Eddie, and introduce Bob. Eddie's friendly, smaller in person, thin. His tie's loosened at the collar.
"You favor your mom," Eddie says.
Bob asks my mother when she's coming back to school and she smiles.
"I saw the place you and Beck are opening," Bob says. "Looks like a perfect size."
Eddie looks at my mom. "You bought it?" he says.
"Yeah," she says, and looks uncertain so I say, "I've been driving her crazy."
My cell phone rings again and I cover my other ear so I can hear Howard and he says, "What's the noise?"
"The Quarter. What's up?"
"When are you coming home?"
"I don't know." I tell him we're in a bad cell, that he's breaking apart, and I hang up. "You're getting me in trouble, Gail."
"We'll be all right, honey." She's takes a sip of her drink and her face is glowing in the low light, luminous, like she's on 70 mm film. "Get us all a table, why don't you? We'll be over in a minute."
Bob and I order gin and tonics and find a spot. The bar is crowded and warm, and there are coats on the back of all the chairs, with sleeves dragging on the ground.
When we're down and settled, Bob says, "I haven't been here in years, I mean, like thirty."
"Me, too," I say. "It's a hard place to like unless you're eighteen and drunk and sitting in some fine guy's lap."
My mom threads her way over to us, smoking a cigarette that she holds in the air above heads, swaying her hips like a Latin dancer so she can get through the people. "Go with me to the ladies' room."
We walk up a curved staircase and stand in line.
"When'd you start?" I ask, pointing at her cigarette. "What else don't I know about my mother?"
She links her arm through mine, like she's my girlfriend and the two of us are here visiting the city. We've only ever taken one trip alone and that was ten years ago. When my godfather died, we flew up to New Jersey for his funeral and left my dad at home. It was nice traveling together, leaving our husbands and homes, headed for this different place. From the moment we left the driveway, our talk was different and eager. We forgot how to get on each other's nerves. On the plane, we sat side by side in wide chairs and drank cocktails. When we encountered turbulence she got nervous, and I held her hand. We caught a cab, tipsy and silly on the way to Bound Brook, NJ. We flopped down on our hotel beds and took quick naps, bathed and dressed up for dinner downstairsblack skirts, pretty sweaters, high heels. We ate mussels steamed in wine, and my mom suddenly leaned her head in close to mine and told me that she and my godfather were in love twenty years ago, and that she had wanted to leave my dad, but he'd threatened to sue her for adultery and take me with him. I was seven when this happened. She opened her purse and took out black and white photos my godfather had taken of just her face, and I looked at her eyes, the warmth in them, and imagined her watching him across the table as he took these pictures. I wondered if they'd made love before, because she still looked naked, like she trusted him with everything. Up in the room we took off our makeup and put on pajamas and I asked how my father found out, if she ever went back to my godfather over the years. I asked every question I could think of and got every answer except how much less of this she had with my father. To that she only smiled and looked away.
The bathroom line's moving slow, and the girls in front of us are unsteady from the rum drink. One of them thinks she's going to be sick and her friend takes her to the front of the line to see if they can cut in.
"Let me borrow the phone," my mom says. She walks away from me and I hear her talking to my father and when she comes back she hands it to me. "Call Howard."
"What do I say?"
She grabs me and holds my arm tighter than seems right, and she says, "Well, Beck, here's what you can say. You can blame me. Tell Howard I'm not a good influence and that although my life is splendid with your father, and I will be married to him forever, when I'm with Eddie things are suddenly sweeter than I ever dreamed possible. Tell him I don't know what it is or why it's happened, and assure him it's not the party or the drinks or the hotel. Say that sitting with Eddie in the front seat of his car at a red light is wonderful, and that when we just look at each otherjust lookwith nothing in the world to say, he fills me up completely. I am breathless." She swings my arm back and forth. "Tell him Eddie makes everything fresh and changes the way the world looks to me, as if it's my own little Paris."
I look at her face, smooth and open in the light, and realize how close I am to trouble, how much I am my mother's daughter. I speed dial Howard when she's in the bathroom and tell him there's nothing to do but wait until she's ready to leave and he starts to fuss, but I think he hears in my voice that this is the best I can do.
"Be safe," he says. "The Causeway's got fog, single-lane restrictions. Call me when you're on the bridge," he says. I love him that second for watching the weather.
"How about you go to sleep," I say, "and I turn off the bat phone?"
My mom and I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and she says I need lipstick and hands me hers. I put my arm around her shoulder and she's smaller than I remember, little-boned. She puts both arms around my waist.
"I'm glad you're here."
We walk downstairs and go back to our seats. Bob helps me scoot in my chair.
"What did I miss?" I say.
"We're half way through the Southeast Conference." He rubs my wrist with the back of his fingers. "Do you want to sit on the patio for a while? It's a nice night."
I look over at Gail and Eddie in the middle of "Rocky Top," bumping shoulders with people sitting around the piano, singing as loud as the fraternity guys and the conventioneers with their name badges, and I think how good it is tonight to be with these vacationing fools, to know I'll keep my mother's hurricane glass as her souvenir of the night, to remember how rare it is to be loved for even a minute like you're new.
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