THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS MOTHER
The first time it occurred to Horace Ross to sell his mother, he was having a beer at Charley's place and the idea didn't take hold. Anyone watching the pieces of Horace's face visible in the mirror behind Charley's bottles, wouldn't have noticed any change. The lips didn't smile, the eyes didn't flutter, the furrows beneath Horace's slack gray hair didn't unfurl. So Charley, wiping glasses didn't offer his usual "Wouldn't give no plug nickel for your thoughts." Not that Horace would have told him what was on his mind. Lots of people came to Charley's to cry. Not Horace. He took his beer without salt.
It came from living with her.
"How old are you sonny?" To the delivery boy. Then "This is my sonny. Give the nice boy a quarter, Horace. When you grow up, you be good to your ma, just like he is." He kept his mouth shut. Fifty-one years - speak no pain. The second time the idea occurred to him, he was at Charley's again. This time the idea turned in his head, this way and that like a street woman showing off her wares. His lips twitched and his eyelids rose like theater curtains. And he liked what he saw. What he saw was himself, Horace Ross trundling his mother in a wheel barrow down a country road. When his eyelids came down, Charley was smiling at him. After two beers he usually went home. He was on his fourth when the woman sat down next to him. He didn't look at her. He heard and smelled. The kind of woman mother's eyes would destroy in the street.
He moved away.
In a few minutes she was next to him once more. "Are you going to move over again?" she asked.
"I ain't much of a talker." "The name's Betty." "From around here?" "Just traveling through." He downed the beer, wiped foam from his face, and ordered another. "Horace," he said. "Horace Ross." Speaking his name set fear biting in his belly. What if she had relatives in town, and mother found out. "I know you think I'm a nosy old woman." Mother said every time she telephoned when he was late coming home from work. He'd called her that, at seventeen, when she'd called all his friends to find out the name of the girl he was dating. "You got folks in town?" Horace asked. "Uh-uh," The woman shook her head. "What about your ma?" "Got rid of her ten years ago." "Smart." Horace reached for his beer. "I'm going to sell mine," he said. "Mas ain't fetching much these days, why don't you just kill her?" the woman smiled. The glass was half way to Horace's parted lips. But he didn't drink from it. Instead, he flung the foaming liquid into her face and fled into the street. It took a month for Horace to be able to show himself at Charley's. He had never acted so angry in his life and all Charley said when he saw him was, "Done blowing off steam?" Horace spent his first two beers thinking maybe it wasn't such a crime to get mad at someone. Then a shouting incident broke out, graduated to shoves and knuckles and ended with spattered blood. It made Horace's heart beat like a steam engine and blew his conscience upside down again. "I don't mind guys boiling over once in a while," Charley said, sliding a third beer toward him after the cops cleared the place out, "but you take the lid off some of them and they end up killers." The new beer brought the laden wheelbarrow back to Horace's eyes. Perfect. It was perfect. "Promise me one thing." How many times had she sworn him to the oath. "No matter what happens, you won't stick me in an old age home." Well, he wouldn't. After the fourth beer he knew the road the barrow was on. In Vermont. And the type of shop he would offer her to. Mother, it had become clear to Horace, with her birth certificate pinned to her breast, was collectible Americana. When he got home she was up. The arthritis again. "Where were you?" And wanted a back rub. At first he didn't mind. But while he was uncapping the alcohol, the laughter - her sympathetic laughter - began. "You poor boy, the things you have to do for your old mother, because you're lucky enough to still have her. Well, just another few years." And he knew she was laughing because she would never die and he would never be free. Anger spurted inside him and made his heart beat like a jack hammer and his conscience turn over again. It was easy to get her to go with him. He'd expected it to be. She was too full of the sense of her maternal powers and of faith in the reciprocity of maternal love to suspect ulterior motives. Besides, she liked car rides. It took two hours to get to the state line. He picked up a wheel barrow in Bennington, jammed it into the trunk and headed east across the state. No one wanted her. In south Vermont, they told him try up north. In the north they said the hills. No one in the hills wanted a ma. Not even for free. "You can't get back what they cost to feed and repair. No one in his right mind wants to be saddled with a ma these days," a man with a barnful of carousel horses told him. Horace was panting. It was hot, the road was dusty, the barrow heavy. Two weeks had passed since they set out. When she was in the car with him, ma talked a blue streak. But he didn't mind because he knew it wasn't going to last too long. In fact, it made the time pass more quickly. He'd drop a pill into her coffee when he had to use the barrow. Once she woke and found herself in it, and to his surprise, it didn't bother her. In fact she said it was nice he'd gotten it, her walking was so bad. For the first time in her life, she said, Horace was showing real consideration. When she'd smiled at him, Horace noticed that her teeth were small and round, like white corn kernels "Your best bet," the carousel man said, "is closer into town." In the towns they laughed. The vogue for mas was over. "Market's been dead three years," a Manchester dealer told him, smiling down at the barrow, and Horace shuddered. "Unless ... " "Unless?" "Heard a rumor. There's a girl buying mas. Don't know why." Doc McGowan in the pharmacy was the one to ask. "Oh mas." McGowan was genial. "Like hula hoops. I got stuck with a barnful of the damn things when the fad pased. Figured out a good way to get rid of them, though. Made a tidy profit too." Horace was in no mood for talk. Mother and the barrow were in the car parked at the curb. But McGowan went on. "They're hollow, those hoops. Did you know? Cut them up," he chuckled. "For straws. Charged extra 'em. Made a big hit at the fountain." He seemed about to expand further but Horace interrupted. "What about the girl who's collecting mas." "Yankee ingenuity," McGowan ignored him. "Use all the parts but the squeal." "What about the girl?" Horace insisted. "Ain't no one buying mas today," McGowan's voice dropped. "I'm not asking much," Horace banged on the counter. "Maybe fifty dollars." "Ain't no one buying them," McGowan repeated. Then a sound in the street. Ma had got out of the car and was coming towards the store. "I heard there is," Horace reached past the silver siphons and grabbed McGowan by the tie. "OK, OK," McGowan said, breaking free and rearranging himself. He pulled a piece of paper from a drawer and began writing. "Here. It's a white house. Up at the other end of the county. Her name is Missy." Horace had the paper in his pocket by the time ma reached his side. She was thirsty. He bought her a sassaparilla soda into which he dropped one of the pills when no one was looking. Then to make conversation he asked the pharmacist if there was anything new for ma's arthritis. "Don't need it, these days," ma said, before McGowan could speak. "You're treating me real good." Horace wasn't sure what ma meant, but it made him mad. He didn't relax until she fell asleep in the car and began snoring again. Looking at her, he noticed her cheeks had filled out. From all the ice cream he'd been buying her, he thought. The house was set three quarters of a mile in from the road. The girl was on the porch - sweeping it - when he arrived. He parked at the side of the inclined path to the house, and leaving mother and the barrow in the car, walked toward her. She was dressed in white, had long straight black hair and wasn't pretty. "I had a hard time finding you." Horace wiped his forehead. I hear you buy mas." "It depends." She continued sweeping. "Who told you?" "Doc McGowan." "What condition is she in?" "A little dusty. We've been traveling, but she still works." "Why are you getting rid of her? Money?" "Gosh, no. She don't want to go to an old folks home. And I don't need her anymore. That's all." "Any relatives?" "Uh-uh," he shook his head. The girl set her broom against the porch rail. "I'll take a look." The house was silent. Sparsely furnished. There seemed to be no one else in it. Following Missy's orders, he got ma into the barrow and wheeled her into a large room with only a long, high table at its center. Then he went out to wait on the porch. In ten minutes Missy brought the barrow out. "A hundred and fifty dollars. Just wheel her down the walk and turn left." "A hundred and fifty dollars," Horace repeated. "Not a cent more. Look at it this way," she said. "It's a good deed all around. Your ma doesn't suffer and feel unwanted. You get the money. We get a few spare parts." She set the barrow before him. "They'll pay you down there." Horace's hands closed around the handles. He looked into the girl's face. She didn't smile. She didn't blink. She just returned his look, then picked up her broom and walked toward the house. Still Horace stared after her. "All right," she turned before letting the door shut behind her. "A hundred seventy five."
It took a long time before Horace could breathe. But when he did, the air passed through his lips so quickly, it sounded like whistle.