Editor’s Choice: Matthew
Mark Farrington is Assistant Director and Fiction Advisor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing Program. He has a B.A. from Colby College and an M.F.A. from George Mason University. His short fiction has won a Virginia Commission on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Prize, the Metroversity Fiction Award, and second place in the Dame Alice Throckmorton Prize, and has been published in The Louisville Review, The New Virginia Review, Coffeehouse Fiction, and other journals and anthologies. He has also published numerous articles on writing and the teaching of writing. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The short story “Motherlove” has been adapted from a chapter in the novel-in-progress, Manion in Darkness.
Grown now and alone, Manion remembers his past as severed bits of planets revolving around his mother, the sun. In one, he is twelve years old, trudging up a muddy mountain road on an afternoon of false spring, his feet sucking and slapping through the caramel mess, his unbuttoned coat flung open like a gunfighter clearing side arms. Ahead waits a big pink puffy ball on the grassy slope in front of their trailer. His mother’s blonde hair is tied in pigtails, the way she wears it sometimes between men when she doesn’t care to look glamorous, just wants it out of her face. She wears pink rubber boots splattered with chocolate, it seems; pink tights that show the whiteness of her thighs through the stretched nylon, and a skirt or shorts shorter than the bottom of her pink jacket, making it look like no shorts or skirt at all. And oversized, pink-lensed sunglasses.
She’s been washing their blue Chevette, sending soapy water bubbling down the gully edging their driveway, which held up this winter because she persuaded her last-winter man to lay pebbles over the dirt before he left. The driveway is still uneven, but there are none of the chasms that forced her to park along the road in previous springs.
Spotting him, she takes a Rocky Balboa stance and pumps her fists into the air. “Woo hoo!” she cries, hopping lazy jumping jacks.
“Woo hoo!” she cries again, and he starts running, his flat-soled shoes slipping in the muck, not caring about the gobs of mud rising up to smack the back of his pants. At the edge of the lawn, he stomps both feet into a bank of snow and steps out, leaving mud-soaked footprints behind. When his mother opens her arms, he rushes into them. She is so light and small, already he outweighs her, and yet her sinewy arms enveloping him contain such desperate strength that he feels captured and safe, his face drawn into the puffy cloud of her coat, the powdery smell reminding him of dropping his head into his pillow at night. He can barely feel her inside all that jacket.
Parting, she takes his hands and begins skipping to her left. He mirrors her, and soon they dance round and round, her face clean and full of joy, gaunt as always, her cheeks red, her eyes big and bright for a change; she hasn’t used anything for a while. She sings, her breath coming in spasms, and he catches only one gasped phrase repeated: “Mulberry bush.” They are locked only by their fingertips, and when that grip begins to slip, her face flashes surprise as pure as a toddler’s as her feet go out from under her and she lands with a thud on her rump, mud splashing, the bottom of her pink coat soaked in it; and laughing still, her eyes close and her face goes blissfully blank, her whole pink back lying against the dirty sponge of a lawn.
He stands over her, giggly and afraid. “Oh, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy,” she says, her head bobbing side to side. Then her eyes open and pin him. “I hope you know this is fucking cold.”
When she raises her arms, he steps forward to help her. He isn’t expecting the sudden jerk down, even noticing her villainous grin. Tugged forward, he’s helpless to do anything but drop, heading straight for the big pink puffy mat below.
At the last instant, he thrusts his palm against the open ground to gain some control of his landing. It allows him to flip clear of her. He settles on his back at her side. “Now you know for sure how cold it is,” she says.
“It’s wet,” he says.
“It’s glorious, isn’t it?” A pleading in her voice: you must agree. Her gritty hand clasps his, and they lay like that, on their backs, as clouds dance around the sun.
The cleanup is not so joyous, but they have no regrets. She showers and washes her hair and puts on jeans and a white sleeveless tee shirt. All their dirty clothes she piles together in one basket for a late-week trip to the Laundromat, but their scrubbed-clean coats hang in the bathtub: they’ll need their coats tomorrow, when the temperature is supposed to drop back into the teens.
Hearing that forecast she shouts, “Dairy Queen,” and soon they head for the soon-to-be-clean-no-longer Chevette, the two of them bundled in sweaters and sweatshirts. Reaching the car, she flashes that same grin, more impish than villainous now, and raises the keys. “Can I?” he begs. “Please?”
“Just as far as the highway.”
His foot hitting the slick driveway almost causes another fall but he clutches the door handle to keep upright. “Check the mirror, fix the seat,” she instructs. “Wait,” she says as he leans forward to insert the key. She grabs the pillow off the back seat and holds it out to him, making him take it despite the tightness in his jaw, the shame in his cheeks. He hates having to sit on this pillow, craves the day he will no longer need it. But he will not sacrifice opportunity to avoid shame. He snatches the pillow and lifting up, shoves it beneath himself.
He gets two-point-seven miles of mud, downhill mostly, before he stops and slides into the opposite seat, while she climbs over him to end up behind the wheel. She gets pavement for her five-point-four mile trip into Skowhegan, where they stop at the Dairy Queen and have hot dogs and fries for supper, hot fudge sundaes for dessert.
Nothing special, that. No big event, no revelations. Just an explosion of joy at being alive on a spring day, false or not, fifty degrees with sunshine and the promise that sometime, maybe not tomorrow but sometime soon, the real spring will come, and following that the summer days of lying outside on lawn chairs, nights sleeping on a mat beneath the stars. There may have been a whiff of love, too; she tended to have good luck with men in summer. But mostly it was his mother happy, and he the lucky beneficiary.
. . .
If he could have kept that one memory and erased all the rest, he might have become a different Gerald Manion. But allowing one forced him to run the gauntlet of them all. It did not matter that the first blow fell as a kiss.
He was six years old when the hand struck out of darkness. Dressed in blue pajamas with cowboys riding bucking broncos and twirling lassoes. From the flickering television came the cottony colors of a cartoon and bouncy, jingling music. There ought to have been warning music when the flat palm drew back; special sound effects when it struck – “boing” – and his head shot out like the ball at the end of a tether then bounced back into place.
The first warning came from his mother: Shut off the fucking TV and go to bed.
“I don’t want to,” he snapped back. “No.” On his knees up close to the set, his eyes crusty with dried tears. “You can’t make me.”
“I told you,” he pleaded, meaning his argument before, that he was afraid to be alone in his bed, even with the light on. When he lay in his bed, skeleton hands grabbed for his ankles. These hands could turn invisible, so no amount of his mother’s searching disclosed them. No amount of explaining convinced her. Still, she gave in sometimes, but no longer, now that she had her new man, Jerry, the big one with the bushy beard and eyebrows, the thick carpet of graying hair across his back. Manion secretly called him “Grizzly Man.”
She and Jerry lay together in the bedroom he’d been banished from. Earlier, he’d spied on them through the narrow slit in the doorway. They took turns being the bronc, then the rider.
Jerry rode a motorcycle and went away for days at a time, while she stumbled around making up for all she did not do with him there: the cleaning and the washing and the cooking. Her eyes were always funny now, gray circled, the pupils small, and when she put on her bikini to lie in the sun he counted the ribs between the two pieces of suit.
They didn’t stay in the bedroom all the time. They wanted to take over the living room and the kitchen, too, so he had to be put out of the way. He’d come out on other nights and caught them, sitting together on a single kitchen chair, his mother backwards on Jerry’s lap, facing him, lolling side to side, up and down.
One time she raised her head and saw him. Her movements had been languid, her forehead resting on his Brillo-pad shoulder, when her head rose and her meandering gaze found him. Her eyes looked milky, the gray crescents underneath having spread, and swollen, and her mouth hung open in a silent O, her cheeks seeming to cave in on themselves. She looked at her son as if he puzzled rather than angered her; as if she couldn’t remember who he was.
His butt resting on his heels, he turned to see the arm sweep through the air, thinking of an airplane he’d watched landing when his mother took him to Bangor, coming in so straight and true. And then the impact. Closing his eyes, he imagined his boy body lifting off the floor and flying across the room, and he ended up on his side, his face hot and stinging, his ears plugged up as if underwater, rivers of rain pouring down his cheeks, some trickling into his ears because of the angle of his head, while this big wild bear of a man hovered over him and again he imagined a cartoon image, the villain so big he blocked the sun.
“Turn off the fucking TV like your mother told you and get your ass to bed.” He turned and took two giant steps away, making the whole trailer rattle. When he stopped and twisted back, his eyes should have been balls of fire. “You don’t want me coming back out here again.”
Cocooned within the blankets wrapped tightest around his vulnerable feet, Gerald curled up in a ball, poised to scream the moment those invisible hands grabbed his body and tugged. Panting, drool dribbling out one corner of his mouth, he heard them take over the living room, the big bear man laughing his big bear laugh. The television went quiet, then burst on again with loud strange music that made the walls vibrate, until the volume lowered. They were watching one of Jerry’s videos. He’d seen one once, when they left it in the machine. It was full of twangy music and people without clothes.
He smelled the smoke that helped his mother sleep. Wondered if there was enough of it in the air it might help him sleep, too.
That was in the summer. She met most of her men in spring, they moved in for the summer, packed up and left before winter. A love life on the cycle of nature.
. . .
There was a good one: Professor Ken. Wire-rimmed glasses, long hair to his shoulders parted in the middle, not stringy like some of the others but neat and soft. He would tuck it back behind his ears, just like his mother did with hers, and then look down and it would all flop back into his face again.
He was a college professor from Massachusetts doing research in the local library for a history book he was writing. How they met was a mystery, even to his mother, as she’d sit beside him on the couch sometimes and tuck back his hair for him and ask, “How did you and I ever get here together like this?”
Ken only laughed and kissed her.
took them out to dinner. Both of them, to a seafood restaurant where Manion ate lobster for the first time. He played catch with Manion in the front hard, dropped his mother at the beauty parlor and took Manion for walks along the river. He never moved in, but when he showed up they’d all eat dinner together, his mother cooking, and they’d watch TV and then Manion went off to bed, and in the morning his mother’s door would be wide open and welcoming, and he’d peek in to see her lying on her side, her back to Professor Ken, whose arms encircled her as if she fit naturally into the slot of him.
They drank wine at dinner and he sometimes found two empty bottles on the counter by the sink when he went out in the morning. She’d sworn off everything else that summer, except the cigarettes she smoked all the time.
He never asked if Ken could stay; he knew the cycles of his mother’s nature. But shouldn’t there have been a different cycle, with the nature of the man so different? If the bad ones all left in autumn, shouldn’t the good one stay through the winter, just for variety’s sake? No, the variety here was how he didn’t even wait for autumn, and all through September, his mother, who usually cursed and broke things when men left her, cried.
. . .
One winter night he woke to banging. His sleep-clouded mind believed a bear was attacking the trailer. He leapt from bed and ran into the hallway. The noise came from his mother’s room, a crack of flesh, a thud, something breaking. “Fucking bitch!” a man snarled. “Fucking cunt.”
When flesh struck flesh, how could one seem so much harder?
A man appeared in the entrance to his mother’s bedroom. Manion saw a balding head and bristly face, the red and white checks of a plaid shirt. Heard an unfamiliar voice: “Get out of my way, you little shit.” Then a tornado hit him and hurled him back against the wall. The back of his head cracked.
Through blurry eyes he saw the man’s plaid shirt stop at the front door. He bent forward and thrust one foot into the work boot he held in both hands. He pulled on the other, grabbed his jacket, and stormed outside, not bothering to tie the laces. Manion dragged himself to his knees. A tender egg swelled in the back of his head. Although the man had slammed the door, the latch didn’t catch and now it swung open and closed, open and closed, while the wind blew a powdery snow inside.
Outside a car engine tried to turn over. Thirteen years old, he imagined lying in wait as the man returned, smashing his kneecaps with a baseball bat, battering his bald head until it shattered like an egg. But inside he was five again, and he muttered a prayer, as the engine cranked: please start. And the answer: the engine turned over. A heavy foot revved the gas. The car squeaked, its tires scrunching packed snow, and headlights sliced through the kitchen window.
Manion hurled himself against the door and slammed the bolt. His sock-covered feet stepped in snow that felt like needles. When he dared draw back the curtain and peek outside, the car was gone.
His mother knelt in a corner, twisted into it as if being punished. He looked for a robe or towel to cover her nakedness. Her body quivered and a hissing, bubbly breath squeezed out of her.
When he brought the towel toward her shoulders, she flinched and jerked, a startled cry popping out. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “He’s gone.”
Blood trickled down one arm. More of it stuck to the wall, spots thick like phlegm. “Ma,” he whispered, arranging the towel again, angry at himself for grabbing something so coarse, when a blanket would have been softer. But she let him lay the towel over her like a shawl. She would not grab it, her arms pressed close to her sides, her hands covering her face. Her legs were bent at an angle so awkward he feared she might have been crippled.
“Here, Ma. I’ll get a blanket.” When he let go, the towel fluttered to the floor.
He managed to coax the softer blanket all the way around her. It stretched behind like a queen’s cape.
Suddenly she burst into tears, as if the blanket had caused it, or allowed it. Her cries were loud and bubbly, her shoulders shaking, while he stood helplessly by, his mind seeking names of people who might help him purchase a gun, teach him how to fire. How much money could he come up with? He’d taken things from the McCrory’s store in town but could he lift enough to earn money for a gun? How would he find the man? He imagined he’d already done the hard stuff and now stood over the man, not his mother, cowering in the corner. “Who’s the little shit now?” he demanded.
The room had grown quiet. His mother stirred, tentatively lifting her head. Her lip had burst like the tender flesh of a grape. There was a puffiness in one cheek, a bruised color already forming around one eye. “Could you get me some ice?” she managed, her voice a raspy, thick whisper, her face flinching with every word.
He rushed out and returned with a bowl of ice. “A washcloth?” she asked, and he ran to the bathroom for that. “Could you wet it?” she asked, pushing the words out the less-damaged side of her mouth. “Cold water.”
She set three ice cubes inside the cloth and folded over the ends. As her hand neared her mouth, her face tensed in anticipation of the pain. She grunted when it touched, then as she turned, the blanket came undone. “Sorry,” she said, and covered her naked front.
When she tried to stand he helped her. She made an “Uh uh” sound as he tried to sit her on the bed, her free hand gesturing toward the pillows.
“You want me to prop them up?”
She nodded, and he reached behind her, then guided her back.
. . .
The next winter she brought no men home. This should have made him happy, but she took to her bed before the light began to fade and stayed there drinking and smoking, her drug the new color TV she recently bought even though she’d lost her job in September, after the tourists went home.
All year he’d been attending school regularly, because he liked Mr. Worthington, the new teacher, who was sarcastic and rebellious and straight-talking, and who had, for some crazy reason, taken a liking to short pudgy young Gerald Manion.
“Get me a new pack of cigs, will you?” she asked when he came in during a break from doing homework. A game show was on TV, three people standing in a line asking about letters in the alphabet. A tall glass one-third full of amber liquid, no ice, sat at her bedside. He’d noticed when she didn’t put ice in her drink, he had more trouble waking her in the morning before he left for school.
After he delivered the cigarettes she patted the bed. “Sit with me a while,” she said. She wore a flannel nightgown with a sweatshirt over that, and thick pink socks. She pushed herself up farther in bed and patted the mattress again. “Come sit with your ma and watch.”
He hadn’t changed from his school clothes yet. He slipped off his loafers and climbed in. He kept space between them, until she leaned over and drew his stiff body close. “My little man,” she said, which made him think of all her other men, Ken and Grizzly Man and Plaid Shirt who beat her.
The show had too much stupid talking, and the prizes were cheap. He looked at the puzzle, four words with most of the letters blank, and made up his own answer: “Fuck this Stupid Show.” He felt a twang of disappointment when they uncovered a letter that proved the puzzle couldn’t say that.
He smelled her burning cigarette. She had scrunched down and laid the ash tray on her belly. “How was school today?” she asked when the commercial came on.
“You still like that teacher, what’s his name? Mr. Whatthefuck?”
“Mr. Worthington,” he said, trying to sound matter of fact. He had tried not to make too much of Mr. Worthington, partly because he didn’t believe, even five months into the school year, that he wouldn’t eventually turn into all the other teachers he’d known who hated him because he wasn’t what they wanted him to be. But he was also afraid she might take an interest in Mr. Worthington. He didn’t want Mr. Worthington to become her next man.
Sometimes he thought he might have liked that, riding to school with Mr. Worthington. He’d have tried extra hard on his homework knowing Mr. Worthington was sleeping across the hall. But what if Mr. Worthington stalked out one night angry and ashamed?
Eyes closed, his mother’s head lolled to the side. She still held the half-burning cigarette. He didn’t understand how she could lie in bed fifteen hours a day and be so tired. He didn’t want to consider what she might be tired of.
“Ma,” he said, giving her a nudge. She jerked awake in time to fleck the long ash into the ashtray. She took a final drag before crushing the cigarette out. She picked up the remote—she was proud of that remote, her first ever—and muted the sound, then stretched on her side, facing him, and closed her eyes.
His body made a subtle shift, preparing to crawl off the bed as soon as she fell asleep. He had homework to finish and a box of macaroni and cheese to make for dinner. They still had the old black and white TV in the living room, and Mr. Worthington had told them to watch the news one night this week and write down what every story was about and how long it lasted. Even though it was only Tuesday and he rarely did homework early, he thought tonight might be a good night.
His mother sighed. He felt the mattress prepare to give up his weight. Then a hand touched him. “Lie with me a few minutes,” she said, her eyes still closed but her hand raising the quilt as if she expected him to burrow beneath it.
He resettled, and she wriggled closer. “Here,” she said, “like this,” and she coaxed him onto his side, his back to her, and then snuggled up tight against him. “Just let me rest like this for a minute,” she said. “It’s so hard for your mother sometimes, Honeysuckle. Everything hurts.”
He hadn’t thought of her being in pain and wondered if she should go to the clinic. “I get so lonely,” she said. “Let me lie here, and then I’ll get up and fix us both a nice dinner. You’re such a big young man.” She pinched the muscle in his arm. “So strong. And I’m so tired. So tired.”
Although she was tight against him, he couldn’t feel much except her bulky clothing. Still, the warmth of her made him perspire. When he drew the quilt clear the cool air helped him breathe. The darkness had settled completely now, except for the flashing colored lights of the muted television. He knew the show on now: Jeopardy. If he twisted his head he could read the answers but with the sound turned off he could never find out what the questions were.
She nudged him onto his back and laid her cheek on his chest. After a while he felt a spot of wet on his shirt. Her breathing was regular, although every once in a while a little moan escaped her and she shifted, burrowing into him more tightly. He read the final jeopardy answer but nobody got the question right, and he couldn’t hear Alex tell them what they should have written down.
The news came on. If he could have seen the clock, he could have timed the stories. Maybe he’d be able to guess what they were about even without sound.
The arm his mother lay on grew numb. When he tried to move, she moved too, and then he found himself moving in a different way. She slid off his arm, which tingled with relief, and then without quite knowing how, she was the one on her back and he hovered above her, not moving so much as being moved, being directed, and he remembered how Ken of all people, college professor, had taught him to throw a baseball by wrapping Manion’s hand around the ball and then wrapping his own hand around Manion’s.
“Baby,” his mother said. She kissed him and guided him and squeezed him hard. His lungs hurt, but it was hard to distinguish what he felt because there was so much to feel, and because all the while, there was another Manion sitting on a shelf in the air high above the bed, and he had a crazy, brief thought that if only he could convince this other floating Manion to look at the television, he might still be able to catch the news.
Then the world exploded. He pictured the cartoon shotgun when the road runner plugged up the opening and it all blew up in coyote’s face. He heard a new noise and realized it was coming from him: desperate, feral. Shuddering, teeth clenched, his mother held on for dear life.
Afterwards, he felt like he was lying on a raft adrift in the ocean. She curled up on her side. Their bodies did not touch. “Goodnight, baby,” she whispered.
After that, he came home from school and found her crying sometimes, sitting at the kitchen table. “Come on, you need to lie down,” he said, and led or carried her into the bedroom. He rarely stayed long. It was like a treatment, to get her through the worst so she could sleep.
At school he slacked off homework, skipped when he felt like it. He started smoking cigarettes. Mr. Worthington yanked him aside one day after lunch, and in the shadowed hallway said, “Since when did you start smoking cigarettes?”
“I don’t,” Manion said, although he had an open pack in the pocket of his jeans.
“I saw you walking through town.”
“It wasn’t me. I swear.”
“It sure looked like you.”
“It must have been somebody else.”
“You don’t smoke?”
Years later, Manion would wonder if the look his memory conjured in Mr. Worthington’s eyes was really there, or if his imagination had constructed it over the years. The challenge, the threat: I’ll give you this, it said, if you must have it, but it will cost you everything.
“No,” Manion said. “That’s crazy. What do you mean? Of course, I don’t smoke.”
. . .
And the last: a breezeless summer night, his mother propped on pillows, the sheet beneath her wrinkled and damp with her sweat and tears. A mound of balled-up tissues cluttered her bedside table; he tried to think of them as flowers but they looked obscene. He waited by her bed, holding an empty grocery bag into which he’d stuff those tissues once she fell asleep. Her body was surrounded by pillows, one long one clutched like a lover in her arms.
When her eyelids closed, he scooped the tissues into the bag. They felt slimy, and he was surprised how much noise a plastic bag could make. Through the window he could see the washed-out watercolor sky, the heat so strong it had blanched all color from the world. He’d set up a fan for her, on a chair at the foot of the bed, but she claimed the pressure of the moving air hurt too much.
Everything hurt her now. Her body had no flesh. Even though her chest and face were bloated, like someone had stuck in a needle and inflated her. Her hair all gone but for the few tufts scattered across her scalp like tumbleweeds across a desert. The soft pink cap—the only color left—lay wedged beneath a pillow. She wore it only because she knew he ached, remembering her hair.
He spent every day and night with her. At school they promised to pass him if he wrote a few papers. They didn’t want him any more than he wanted them. He hadn’t started the papers although he should have turned in the first one by now. It didn’t matter. Soon enough he’d quit.
He sat in front of the open kitchen window and listened to the crickets, to the rare gravelly crunch of a car passing their patch of land, coming down Rattlesnake Hill or going up, teenagers probably looking for a place to park. Sometimes he remembered the bald man in the plaid shirt who beat his mother. He pictured the man showing up at their door, awkwardly bathed and sweet smelling, holding flowers maybe. Hungry and apologetic. In his imagination, the bald man knelt on the steps as Manion whipped forward his foot in his steel-toed boots and connected with bone-crushing satisfaction. He told the bald man, “You gotta bleed to come in here.”
He remembered, too, the times she used to pick him up at school, parking her little Chevette along the street and getting out to stand beside the car, wearing her impossibly tight short-shorts, big sunglasses, scarf tied over her hair, a man’s shirt open in front to reveal her lacy bra. And little pink sandals, the toenails also pink. He was the envy of every male in school, and as he reached her, sometimes she’d hug him and lift him up and twirl him, and he would laugh at all the adolescent boy mouths drooling over her as she turned her back on them and sashayed her hips, pushing her butt back just a smidgeon to make sure that as long as they lived, those boys would never forget that sight.
He washed dishes, poured a whiskey, lit a cigarette. He wouldn’t smoke in her presence because all the smoke she’d inhaled all those years had made her sick today. Even so, when she was sharp she could smell it on him, and sometimes she asked him to give her one. He gave in once, figuring Why not? But the coughing it brought on raked her raw.
He cared for her through August, waking up to worry every once in a while about those papers he failed to write. The school passed him anyway and still he quit, his birthday and his mother’s burial coming so close together he knew he’d never remember one without the other.
Afterwards, there was nothing left but to leave. Where he landed, or how he survived, doesn’t matter; there is always work for a man who’ll do anything. He met a woman, or two or three, but it always ended badly, and he found himself wondering if not his mother but the love itself was to blame. He knew he could never love that way again, and yet he did not know how to love differently. Did that mean, he asked the no one who never listens, that there will never be a time he’s not alone?
But there’s a lifetime left for him to wonder that. For this one night in Skowhegan, he has his mother still, and finishing his whiskey and his cigarette, he turns off the kitchen light and returns to her room. She has managed to wriggle to the center of the bed, leaving enough space for him to climb in beside her. She remains turned away from him, and he is careful not to touch her, because even the slightest bump will make her flinch in pain. Even so, untouched, she will sometimes hiss through clenched teeth, and his eyes will fill with moisture, not because she is dying and without her his whole world will empty, but because she is his mother, and everything hurts.