I remember a time when I first began to perceive the underlying melancholy of the spring, a presence not quite hidden in the perfume of the flowers, the warmth of the sun, and the color of even the most perfect blue-green day. It was Mother's Day weekend. I was living on the farm with my grandparents but visiting my parents on weekends in Allenvale, a town about fifteen miles from our farm. On the Sunday before when Mother and Daddy had brought me back to the farm, Mother said that she would plan to spend next weekend with us rather than taking me into town since it would be Mother's Day and she always went to church with my grandparents at their church on that day. But I didn't like the idea for several reasons. First of all, I usually went to the movies on Saturday afternoons when I was in town and was currently in the middle of one of those serials with continued episodes and thought that I absolutely had to see the episode next Saturday. Also, I didn't like the weekends when Mother stayed with us, as she occasionally did, because that usually meant that something was wrong with Daddy--I didn't know what at the time--and Mother would be depressed and cross. So I begged her not to stay but to come and get me on Friday. I argued that we could come back on Sunday morning in time to go to church. Finally, she relented, and I was happy.
When Friday afternoon came, Grandmother, as usual, had some clothes ready for me to take and me scrubbed and polished. Mother nor Daddy came, though, at the time we expected. Ordinarily Mother came by herself because she got off work at four o'clock and Daddy didn't get off until five. Sometimes Daddy had Friday afternoons off and he would come by himself or sometimes Mother would wait until he got off and they both would drive out to get me. This afternoon, however, no one had come, and it was way past five o'clock. I began to worry that Mother had changed her mind. Grandmother tried to reassure me that she had promised and would keep her word. "They've just got a late start," she said, "or they might have had trouble with the car." I continued to fret, though, until I saw the car coming down the road.
When Mother got out of the car, I could tell that something was wrong. She looked as if she had been crying. I ran from the back porch to meet her and walk with her to the house. Grandmother came out of the kitchen door just as we started up the steps to the porch.
"Why, Mary Alice, what's--" Grandmother started but caught herself. "Well," she continued after a pause, "Paul and I had just about give you out. You didn't have car trouble, did you?"
"No." Mother was making an effort to control her voice.
"I've got something on the stove I've got to look after. You all come on in the kitchen."
Mother started to follow Grandmother in but turned and said, "Paul, you stay out here on the porch for a little while, will you?"
"Do you want me to put my things in the car?"
"No--not yet. We'll get them in a minute."
Mother went in and closed the door behind her. I stayed outside and tried to hear what they were saying but couldn't hear anything distinctly enough to know what they were talking about. After a few minutes Grandmother came out on the porch, and Mother stood in the door behind her.
"Paul," Grandmother began cautiously, "your Mother's tired and she doesn't feel good. She thinks it would be better if you all stayed here this weekend. That'll be all right this time, won't it?"
"No!" I started to panic and looked desperately at Mother.
"Please, Paul," Mother said. "Just this time. I don't feel good at all."
"But you promised." I turned to Grandmother. "You said that she had promised and she'd keep her word."
"But I didn't know--I mean she would keep her word if she didn't feel bad."
"Circumstances alter situations, you know," Mother said.
"But you promised. You promised."
"He has had his heart set on it all week," Grandmother said.
"But I can't . . . I can't . . ." Mother looked helplessly at Grandmother.
"Well, I reckon he's got to see sometime. You can't keep it from him forever." Grandmother started back into the kitchen, and Mother stepped out on the porch to let her through the door.
"Paul," Mother said after looking thoughtfully at me, "suppose we just stay here tonight and then go to town tomorrow. I promise we'll get there in time for you to go to the show."
"I want to go tonight. Please, let's go tonight." I was afraid that if I conceded that much I would lose altogether. So I continued to plead with her.
"Oh, all right," Mother said her patience giving out, "we'll go tonight. But I don't think it's best. I've tried to do the right thing by you. I've tried and I don't know what--" Mother suppressed what would have been a sob. Turning quickly she opened the screen door to go into the kitchen, but she stopped halfway through the door and stood for a moment. When she turned to face me again, she was in control. "We'll stay and eat supper with Grandmother, and that'll give me a little time to rest. Then we'll go to town. You can go ahead and put your things in the car if you want to."
Mother went into the kitchen, and I ran into the dining room where Grandmother had placed the few things I was to take on a chair at the foot of the stairs. I gathered them up and ran through the kitchen to the back door. Mother was sitting at the table watching Grandmother as she finished her preparations for supper. Neither was saying anything, and Mother looked tired, tired and defeated. The feeling of elation which had come with my victory began to disappear, and I started to feel guilty. I dashed through the back door and across the yard to the car, but I had the urge to turn around and take my things into the house and tell Mother that it would be all right for us to stay here for the weekend. After all, she did look awfully tired, and I knew that something was wrong. I thought about what Grandmother had said--"I reckon he's got to see sometime. You can't keep it from him forever." I dreaded to go because I was afraid of what I might see. Yet I was also intrigued, and, besides, there was the serial. So I put my things in the car and decided that I wouldn't say anything more about it. If Mother said again that she wanted to stay, I would agree. But if she didn't mention it, I wouldn't either.
Grandfather, Pa as I called him, came in soon from the barn and started to wash up for supper. When he saw that Mother and I were there, he said, "Well, Mary Alice, did you decide to stay with us this weekend?"
"No, we're going back tonight. I was late getting here and I thought we'd stay for supper."
"Why didn't Howard come with you?" He looked suspiciously at Mother.
"He . . . he had to work late. Jim Barber is sick and wouldn't be able to come in at five. So Howard said he'd stay and work for another couple of hours at least."
"I see. Well, I think you might stay."
"No. No, we're going back right after supper."
I was holding my breath. I knew that Mother was about to say that she wanted to stay but was going back because I wanted to and that, according to my prior agreement with myself, I would have to say that I had changed my mind. But she didn't. In fact, she seemed to be making an effort to keep Grandfather from knowing that something was wrong. She avoided looking at Grandmother while she was talking to him.
Grandmother put the food on the table in the dining room soon, and we all sat down. The meal passed pretty much in silence. Grandfather did not normally talk much, but tonight it seemed as if none of us could think of anything to say. Grandmother asked Mother a couple of questions about her work, but Mother answered briefly. When we finished, Mother said that she would help Grandmother with the dishes.
Grandmother said, though, "I can do them--I've got nothing else to do. It's almost dark now, and, if you're going to town, you better get started. Don't be on the road later than you have to." So Mother and I left soon.
As we drove into town, I thought about some of the times when both Mother and Daddy had come to get me and we would sing on our way back to town. Those were happy times for me. Now, though, Mother didn't sing at all. She hardly even talked. She asked me a few questions about what I had been doing during the week. She didn't seem to be listening, though, so I didn't elaborate.
When we pulled into the driveway at out house, there were no lights on, and Mother seemed relieved. "Well, he's either not here or else gone to bed," she said more to herself than to me. We got out of the car and walked across the lawn. Mother opened the front door and reached inside to turn on the light before going in. Hesitating in the door for a moment she then went in. I followed her and looked at the room in amazement. A small chair was turned over and several objects which had obviously been knocked off the tables were on the floor. A small vase was broken into several pieces. "I didn't have time to straighten things up before I left," Mother said seeing how I was staring about the room. She began picking things up and putting everything in order. "Go on and put your clothes in your bedroom."
The front bedroom adjoining the living room was referred to as my bedroom although I stayed there only on weekends. I went into that room and put my clothes down. Looking back into the living room I saw Mother going to the door at the back of the room, the door to the other bedroom. She opened it cautiously and looked in and then pushed the door all the way open. No one was in the room.
"Your daddy's not here," she said as I came into the living room.
I waited for some explanation, but Mother didn't offer any. So I asked, "Will he be here soon?"
"I don't know. I doubt it."
"Where is he?"
"I . . . don't know."
"Is he at work?"
"No. I mean I don't think so."
"Then where is he?"
"I don't know. I've already told you I don't know. Just forget about it. Do you want something to drink before you go to bed?"
I looked at Mother in surprise. It was earlier than my usual bedtime when I was at the farm, and I was accustomed to staying up even later when I was in town. But Mother was determined.
"Do you want something to drink?"
"I'd like some chocolate milk."
"I don't have any chocolate milk. I didn't get any today. I had planned to stay at the farm, you know."
I felt guilty again, but I didn't say anything about it. "I'd like a co-cola then."
"You shouldn't drink a co-cola--it's not good for you, especially at bedtime. Oh, all right, since I don't have anything else you'll drink." She went into the kitchen and came back in a few minutes with two glasses. Dividing a Coco Cola between them, she handed me one of the glasses and sat in a chair.
"Is Daddy sick?"
"Yes--Ah, he's not feeling well. He's not himself. He's . . he's just not feeling well. Hurry up and drink your co-cola." Putting her glass on a table she walked quickly into my bedroom and began turning down the cover on the bed. After she finished, she came back into the living room and opened the front door. Hooking the screen she closed the door and locked it. "Are you finished?" she asked looking at my glass.
"Go to the bathroom then and get ready for bed." Going to the other bedroom she began fixing the bed in there. Later she came into my room to tuck me in. She bent over, kissed me on the forehead, and said goodnight. Then turning out the light she left the room closing the door behind her.
I heard her moving around in the living room for a little while, but soon everything was quiet, and I knew she had gone to bed. I lay there in the dark turning things over in my mind--Mother's unusual behavior, the disarray of the living room, the mystery about Daddy. I couldn't make it all fit together. I seemed to lack a central factor which would make it all clear. I puzzled over these things for a time but soon began to have my frequent half-asleep-half-awake dream. It was a pleasant dream, unlike the recurring nightmare I had. This one was, I suppose, an unconscious effort to put myself to sleep. I would first of all dream that I was flying low over a desert and I could see nothing below me except the light-brown sand. But then the sand would begin to change color as I flew farther on--red, yellow, blue, green—oblivion.
I don't know how long I slept, but I was awakened suddenly. At first I didn't know what had waked me, but then I heard it again. Someone was knocking on the front door, pounding rather. I heard Mother go to the door, but she didn't open it. She must have been looking out the little window trying to see who was there.
"Stop that," she said in a low voice as the pounding started again.
"Mary Alice? Mary Alice, are you there?" It was Daddy's voice, but it sounded strange.
"Be quiet! You'll wake Paul up."
"You've got the screen hooked. I can't get in."
"I know I've got the screen hooked."
"Well, open it and let me in."
"No. Go away. Go somewhere else. I don't want you here in the shape you're in."
"This is my home. I--"
"It's not your home when you're like this. Go away. Go back to your . . . your friends. If you can stay out over half the night, you can stay out the rest of the time. Go away!"
"Mary Alice, honey" pleading now, "Mary Alice, please let me in. Please, sweetheart."
Mother didn't say anything.
"Mary Alice, open the door." He wasn't pleading now and his voice was ugly and rising. "Open the goddamn door--open the goddamn door!"
I heard him pulling at the screen trying to pull the hook off. Then the pounding started again louder and louder. I lay there frightened, horribly frightened. I hoped Mother wouldn't let him in. It couldn't be Daddy. It couldn't. I wished desperately that we had not come here, that I was in my safe, secure bed at the farm. More than anything else I wished that Grandmother were here. Finally I heard Mother unlocking the door. The noise subsided.
"If I unhook this door and let you in, will you go straight to bed and not make any more noise? You've probably already waked Paul."
"I want to see Paul."
"Absolutely not! Not at this hour and certainly not in the shape you're in. I hope he never sees you like this."
"Mary Alice, honey, please--"
"Only if you promise to go straight to bed."
"Mary Alice, baby, you're my only girl--you're the only one I've ever--"
"Just shut up! Either you're going to shut up and come in and go to bed or you're going to go away. Now which is it?"
"I'll be quiet."
"And you'll go to bed?"
"Do you promise me that?"
"Have you got anything with you?"
"Well if you have, you can just throw it away before you come in. I'm not having any of that stuff in my house."
"I don't have any."
"No, I suppose you don't. That's the only reason you came home because you had run out."
I heard Mother unhook the screen and then close and relock the front door.
"Don't go in there!" Apparently he had started to my bedroom. "Remember what you promised."
"No you don't!"
I heard what sounded like a scuffle and then something crashed on the floor. Mother and Daddy both started shouting, saying terrible things to each other. I was horrified. Another scuffle commenced, but the noise seemed to be moving toward the other bedroom. I heard them still talking loudly, but now they were in the other room and their voices were muffled enough so that I couldn't understand what they were saying. Then I heard a strange thing--Daddy was crying, sobbing like a child. Finally the door slammed, and I heard Mother moving around in the living room. Evidently she was straightening things up again. She opened the door to my room a little way and looked in, but I pretended to be asleep and she soon closed the door. Then everything got quiet. I guessed that she was going to sleep on the couch.
I lay very still for a long time listening. I was scared, scared even to be in the same house with him. I had never dreamed that my father could be like that. I kept hearing in my mind the terrible things he had said, the ugly sound of his voice, the way he slurred the words when he spoke, the scuffle. I wanted to get up and go to Mother, but I didn't dare move. I tried to stop thinking about it, tried to go to sleep. I kept waiting for my dream, but it wouldn't come--there were too many things buzzing in my head. After an indeterminable time, I fell asleep.
"Paul--Paul--Oh, Paul." Mother stood in the door between my room and the kitchen. "You're sleeping late this morning. Aren't you about ready to get up?"
"Yes'm," I said as I turned to look at her.
"What would you like for breakfast?" She smiled and tried to look cheerful, but she looked more tired than she had last night and her face was drawn.
"I don't care."
"You want bacon and eggs?"
"O.K. I'll have them ready in a jiffy. Get up and get dressed."
I got out of bed and dressed slowly. The bright sunlight shining into the room made the events of the night seem less horrible, but I still dreaded to see Daddy.
"You look sleepy," Mother said as I went into the kitchen. "Didn't you sleep good last night?" She watched me closely for a moment.
"Yes'm. I slept all right, I guess."
"If you don't know, you must have slept, right?"
"Here drink some juice." She handed me a glass. "I've about got the eggs ready."
I sat down at the table and drank the juice slowly. I looked toward the door which led into the other bedroom. The door was closed, and there was no noise coming from the room.
"Your Daddy came home last night after you had gone to sleep," Mother said seeing my glance at the door. "But he's sick, so we'll let him rest. I don't imagine he would want to get up anyway." She placed the food before me, and I started to eat. Before I had finished, we heard Daddy calling from the bedroom.
"Mary Alice--Mary Alice, come here." He sounded weak.
Mother went into the bedroom. I tensed up and had difficulty swallowing my food. Mother talked briefly with him. He seemed to have even more trouble talking this morning than last night. Mother tried to sound pleasant, for my benefit I'm sure, but there was a harsh quality in her voice when she spoke to him.
"He wants to see you," she said as she came back into the kitchen. "Go in and say hello and then come back and finish your breakfast. Just say hello. He's sick and we don't want to bother him."
I didn't move from the table.
"Well, come on. He's not going to hurt you."
Getting up I walked slowly and reluctantly into the bedroom. There was a faint, unpleasant odor in the room. Daddy made no effort to get up, but just lay flat on the bed looking at me. I went only a few steps into the room and didn't go close to the bed. Mother stood in the door watching us.
"Hello, Son, come on over here and see me."
"Hello," I said not moving.
"Come on--come on over here and see your ole daddy." When I didn't move, he looked at Mother and said, "I guess you've made him afraid of me. I guess you've told him--"
"I've told him nothing," Mother snapped. "Come on, Paul, finish your breakfast. Let your daddy rest."
"No. I don't need to rest. I need to talk to my son. Come on over here--"
I turned and hurried back into the kitchen. Mother came through the door and closed it behind her.
I sat at the table for a while longer, but I didn't eat anymore. Daddy kept calling sporadically from the bedroom for both Mother and me, but neither of us answered him. After Mother saw that I wasn't going to eat anymore, she told me to go out into the back yard. I obeyed, glad for a chance to get out of the house. I wandered around in the yard inspecting things and looking frequently toward the house. The shades were pulled down in Daddy's room, and I didn't hear any commotion. I hoped that he had gone back to sleep. I kept going over and over all the things that had happened trying to understand but always failing. I spent a good bit of time in the yard before Mother came out on the back porch and called me.
"I've just talked to your Aunt Sarah on the telephone," she said as I met her at the steps, "and she said she would let me have some flowers for tomorrow. Would you like to go get them for me?"
Aunt Sarah was Daddy's aunt who lived two blocks up the street from us. She took great pride in the flowers she raised in her back yard and always had a great many in the spring. I suppose Mother had decided since she was back in town anyway to get flowers to take to church in addition to the ones Grandmother would have. It was the custom at Grandmother's church to decorate the graves on Mother's Day. Of course I wanted to go. It made me feel important to be trusted with such an errand--I even had to cross a street by myself, although a small one. Also, I wanted to show Mother that I would do anything for her. I felt sorry for her and I wanted her to know how much I loved her.
"Here," she said pressing two bills into the palm of my hand, "hold tight to this. We've already agreed on what kind and how many. So you just give her this money and get the flowers."
"And be careful crossing the street."
"Paul," Mother called me back before I got around the corner of the house, "don't tell her about your daddy--that he's sick I mean. It would just cause her to worry."
I nodded my head and continued on around the house. When I got to Aunt Sarah's, she was waiting for me on the front porch. She talked with me for a few minutes before we went to cut the flowers. She asked me about Grandmother and Grandfather and what I had been doing, but she didn't say anything about Daddy. I was relieved. I didn't know what I would say if she did because Grandmother had impressed permanently upon me that I must never tell a lie, yet I didn't want to worry Aunt Sarah and certainly didn't want to disobey Mother.
"There now," she said as she handed me some flowers. "I believe that's all. She just said glads and iris and tulips, didn't she?"
"I don't know."
"I'm sure that's all she wanted." Aunt Sarah struggled to her feet. She was short and round and seemed to have difficulty moving. I was afraid when she got down on her knees she would not be able to get up again, but she always managed.
"Mother said give you this." I handed her the bills and bent over to scoop up the bundle of flowers.
"Thank you very much. Wait a minute--before you go."
I straightened and watched as Aunt Sarah crossed to a rose bush and cut off three large red roses. She put them in the bundle with the other flowers.
"I'm going to give you these roses to give to your mother for Mother's Day, all right?"
"Now make certain she understands. The roses are not part of the flowers she bought. I gave them to you, and you are giving them to her for Mother's Day."
"Yes'm. Thank you, Aunt Sarah."
"Well, you're entirely welcome. Be sweet now and come back and see me."
"I will. Goodbye."
The purples, golds, and reds in the sunlight and the various perfumes mingling made me light-hearted as I walked down the sidewalk. And the present for Mother! How good it made me feel. I knew it would make her happy.
"Well, you got them, didn't you?" Mother said as she held the screen door for me. "My, they're beautiful. Won't Grandmother be proud when she sees them? Why, look at these roses! What are they doing here? I didn't tell her to send roses."
"No--they're for you. I mean she give them to me, and I'm giving them to you--for Mother's Day."
"Paul! Oh, Paul--" Mother bent over and kissed me and then hugged me closely to her. "Oh, Paul, I love you. I do love you, baby." She started crying, but she got up quickly and turned her back to me. Wiping at her eyes a few times she turned to face me again. "Thank you, Paul. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for thinking about Mother when . . . when . . ." She choked up, but recovered and changed the subject. "Those are the prettiest roses I've ever seen, and I'm going to take them out and put them in some water." She picked up a vase and took it in the kitchen to put some water in it.
While she was gone, I looked at the closed door to Daddy's room, and I started to feel the oppressive weight settling on me again, the feeling which had been only briefly dispelled by the sun and the flowers and the joy of making Mother happy if only for a moment.
"There now, aren't they pretty?" Mother said as she arranged the roses in the vase. She picked up the bundle of flowers and took them into the kitchen. Aunt Sarah had wrapped them in a newspaper, and Mother dampened the bottom of the bundle to help keep the flowers fresh. Returning to the living room she saw me still staring at the door. "Your daddy's asleep, and it'll be better if we don't wake him up. Did Aunt Sarah ask about him?"
"Well, that's good. I tell you what--why don't we go uptown and get a hamburger for lunch. Would you like that?" She knew, of course, that I would. "We can get a hamburger and then it'll be time for you to go to the show. O.K.?"
"Let's get ready and go soon."
After a few hurried preparations, we left the house. All of the things which had been troubling my mind began to dim before the last episode of the serial and were completely gone half-way through the western which followed. I felt good when I left the theater, like the Paul I had been yesterday. But then I saw the car and Mother waiting for me. When I saw Mother's face, everything was upon me again.
Mother got out of the car when she saw me. "Would you like to go to the drug store and get some ice cream?" she asked as I walked up.
"Sure." She was really treating me today--a hamburger for lunch and the drug store after the movies.
"Paul," Mother said when we had about finished our ice cream, "since your daddy's sick and it's so miserable at home, don't you think it would be better if we went back to Grandmother's now and stayed there tonight. You've already seen the show and there's nothing else you want to do, is there?"
"So don't you think it would be better if we went back?"
"I think it would. We can't enjoy ourselves while your daddy's the way he is and--it'll just be better."
"I've already put our things in the car."
I noticed the bundle of flowers on the back seat when I got in the car. Mother had put the roses back in the bundle with the other flowers. I was thrilled--she thought so much of them that she was taking them to show to Grandmother.
Neither Grandmother nor Grandfather showed any surprise when Mother and I drove up. They seemed actually to be expecting us. Mother didn't say anything about Daddy in front of me, but she managed to talk with Grandmother alone for a long time in the kitchen after supper. I was happy to be back, happy to be far away from the horror of last night. When I sank into the featherbed on my bed, my safe, secure bed, I very soon slipped into unconscious sleep. I was exhausted. I had been under a strain since Mother arrived yesterday and I hadn't slept much last night. Only one thought troubled me as I was drifting away--Mother hadn't taken her roses out of the bundle.
Grandmother called me the next morning. Soon after breakfast I got cleaned up and dressed for church. When I finished, I went into the kitchen. Grandmother was covering some pans on the stove. She always cooked dinner before leaving for church so that it would be ready when we got back.
"My, don't you look pretty," she said. "Wait, you haven't got your hair parted straight. I'll do it, or you can get your mother to help you."
"Where is Mother?"
"She's putting the flowers in the car now."
I walked out onto the porch. Mother had driven Grandfather's car into the backyard and was just putting the flowers Grandmother had prepared in the trunk. The bundle of flowers we had brought was lying on the back porch. The roses were still in the bundle. Suddenly I realized that Mother wasn't going to take them out. She was going to put them on the graves with the other flowers. They weren't anything special to her after all. I thought she would put them in a vase here and show them to Grandmother and then, maybe even, take them back home with her. But she hadn't even said anything about them. I ran to the bundle, pulled the roses out, and started tearing them to pieces. I scattered the petals on the ground.
"Paul!" Mother exclaimed when she saw me. "What are you doing? What's the matter with you!"
Tearing open the bundle I started throwing the other flowers off the porch.
"Paul! what is the matter with you!" She was on the porch now and grabbed my arm. "What is the matter with you?"
"What's the trouble?" Grandmother came out of the kitchen door.
"Just look what he's done. He's torn those roses up and scattered the other flowers all over the ground."
"Why, Paul, did you do that?"
"Get me one of Daddy's belts."
"Now, Mary Alice, you're not going to--"
"Yes I am. I'm not having any such behavior!"
"Mary Alice, calm down. You've both had a bad time and--"
"Get me one of Daddy's belts!"
"Get it yourself if you want it." Grandmother wheeled quickly back into the kitchen.
"Never mind. I don't need a belt. Paul, I can't believe you'd do such a thing. I can't believe you'd treat me this way. And on Mother's Day!" She lifted her hand for the first blow.
Robert W. Witt, a member of the faculty at Eastern Kentucky, has published four novels, including Hour in Paradise and Breakfast at Noon. In addition he has published numerous stories and scholarly books and articles. Various of his plays have been performed in California, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, and North Carolina. At the university he teaches courses in both Shakespeare and creative writing and edits The Chaffin Journal, an annual literary review.
Copyright 2005, Robert W. Witt. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.