A Modular Tale
A mother wanders through a vast Episcopal cathedral in a lavender dress. She is strikingly beautiful, in a haunting way, her son will think years later, a flame-haired woman who smells of perfume and something musky. Mysterious. Something the boy cannot put his finger on. She takes her son by the hand. He cannot recall how old he was. Seven. No, eight. He had just turned eight. But this is an image her son will always keep in his mind, as if it were a holy sacrament. He recalls that she wanted some peace. At least that’s what he recalls her saying. Some parts of this image might be a little shaky, but other fragments are clear as glass.
In this image, she is serene. Calm. That much is absolutely certain. Perhaps a little too much so. This is only two weeks after the boy’s father has left. He left late one night, without any note, any sort of explanation. No phone call, no excuses. He simply wandered into the night and never returned. The boy has imagined his father’s Volkswagen bug sputtering away into the night, until it became absorbed by the world, while his mother moved about, put the boy to bed, told him stories.
“Look at this,” she says, motioning to the vaulted Gothic arches, the dark mahogany pews that smell of lemon furniture polish, the wooden altar adorned with statues. “Don’t you love all this?”
“It’s so peaceful,” she says. “How I wish I could just go away. Wouldn’t you like that? Just to go away for a long time.”
“I guess, Mama.”
“Soon,” she says, smiling. She brushes a strand of hair from his brow. “Someday soon.”
The boy will always remember this moment, the way the stained-glass windows spilled upon his mother. Reds and blues bathe her in a kind of vast luminosity. She resembles a sort of ghost to the boy.
“We’re special,” she says and winks at him. “We’re special darling. Remember that. No one can come after us. We’re not like the rest. Other people, I mean. They just care about themselves.”
“Yes, Mama,” he says solemnly. He feels even then that there is something missing in his mother’s life. Something she needs. Even at home she’d always been adrift, lonely. She used to talk about wanting to go away before this. The boy cannot recall the father’s responses, but the boy was on her side. Mother and son against the world.
“I feel like I’m with strangers,” she once told the boy. But the way she said it, at least then, he felt like he was on her side. It was mother and son against the world.
She hugs him and tells the boy she loves him. For years, he will try to add up what it really means to love. To be loved.
The boy is in an MFA program in the town of Y, Colorado, a town known for its twenty-something breweries. It is his second year. He is twenty-seven. There are ten students in his class, and their stories range from alien invasions to traditional, divorce-in-the suburbs material, like his own work.
He still prefers to be called the boy. He wrestles with his own last name, with his first name for that matter. The name his mother has given him. Every time someone utters it, he feels the past rush to him like a freight train, and he is helpless. He has been assigned a name, a sort of identity by his mother. His name translates to “beloved.” Yet he doesn’t feel beloved. Certainly he has been accepted by his classmates, by his instructors, but he wouldn’t say that they love him in any visible way.
The boy envies his classmates, who come from vibrant families, parents who are still together, who have stuck it out through bills, and familial loss, through failed business ventures. They hold onto their family connections and talk about them, even if they pretend to be embarrassed. They have parents who follow their children’s stories, who have taken them bowling and hunting and on vacations. They can afford to escape their parents, knowing that they are a constant, that they are loved.
There are nights he wonders if his mother chose his name at random, unable to appreciate the weight that a name connotes. He wonders what connection she felt, staring at him, her newborn child, what instinct. This lack of knowing follows him, in his classes, at the bar drinking after workshop, no matter how hard he tries.
Instructions in Modularity
His fiction professor Nancy Botkin has assigned him to write a modular story. The thought frightens and soothes him. He likes the idea of the modular story, thinks of it as a sort of Russian nesting doll, concealing layer upon layer of emotion. Unlike your typical cause-effect story where Y reacts to something X does, and Y has to make sense of it, and try to come to a realization of some sort.
If the boy is Y, he doesn’t think he can ever come to a conclusion about X. He loves X and he is bewildered by X. He wishes that the world were like a rom-com, packaged with a happy ending. He thinks of X on a constant basis. X, that mysterious woman in lavender, moving so gracefully through his life one day, and then disappearing into a netherworld the next.
The boy often recalls the night his mother, his wonderful Mama, disappeared. He was eight. He’d kissed his mother before he got on the bus that morning, and she’d smiled, a crooked little smile and told him she loved him. She had been watching the news, Bill Clinton talking about sexual relations and Miss Lewinsky. He still wonders if there was some hint, some trace in her behavior that he missed. He doesn’t recall her telling him anything special, or doing anything, though it would occur to him later that she might have been a little too serene, like that night in that cathedral, a little too loving perhaps.
The boy always remembered coming home that night. He remembered the sense of heaviness that hung over their little apartment, with its musky smells, the sense of something grim, indefinable. He’d sat on the old lime green couch that always smelled like a foot, surrounded by plastic tables, half-broken. He’d stared at the pee-colored walls, which seemed particularly cruel tonight, the stacks of Mama’s books, the Shakespeare (or Shakes-beer as he called it then) and Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” These had seemed charming when Mama was around to joke about their lives, even the pee-colored walls, the smells. Now they seemed broken, disconnected, like there was no logic in their existence or arrangements.
“We’re poor as peasants,” she’d said and laughed, as if it were an honor.
He’d watched “Forrest Gump” while he waited, because it was one of Mama’s favorite movies. In some ways she reminded him of Mama Gump, with the intensity of her attention. Plus Forrest was “special” too.
The boy had waited and waited, and as the night had deepened, he’d felt like a drowning kid at the beach. Yet, he couldn’t act. He remembers the sense that his legs were tied down by something, by fear, by shock. He was glued to that lime-green couch as though it were an island of hope amongst the cruel reality. If he got up, he felt like something bad might happen, something he didn’t want to hear.
The boy’s life had been defined in terms of his mother. He always thought of his actions in terms of whether Mama would be pleased or displeased, or what she would have to say on any particular topic. Making friends. Struggling in class. In some ways, even now, he thinks he is still her child, or imagines that he might be going through the same struggles she did. Oddly that thought fills him with a certain connection.
Other images of that night: Watching out the window, the peacefulness of the moonlit winter’s night, the stillness of the block with darkened windows, as if everything were still normal. It was a winter’s evening, the oak trees across the street bare like skeletons, all the joy of Christmas gone. He remembers the way the moon hung over him, over the patches of snow, darting in and out of clouds as if to escape something.
And he remembers holding onto that firm sensation that she would come back, through the rounds of tears, through it all. He kept repeating the mantra, determined that it should be so. She was special. He was special.
Special people did not leave each other. Happy people never left.
Theory of Modularity
Professor Botkin has the boy read an article about modular fiction by Madison Smart Bell.
“You can work this into your own story,” Professor Botkin says.
Bell talks about the differences between linear and so called modular stories. Bell describes modular stories as being made up of many pieces, rather than an amorphous whole. The boy wonders how his life would fit in this scheme. On one hand his life seems linear: He was born, his father left, his mother disappeared. Now he is in college. On the other hand, his life seems like fragments: He lost both parents before adulthood, something that deviates from the natural order. His parents are possibly still out in the world, fragments of an incomplete mosaic. He wonders if his mother is happy now.
The boy relishes sunset. There is something cathedral-like about it all, the array of lavender, pink, and orange spilling across the campus as he walks home to his small apartment by the railroad tracks. He feels as if he is a boy again, as if all is peaceful, the way the world should be. Streetlamps flicker on gently. The boy relishes the fresh scent of an autumn evening, the coolness.
Modular Story, Permutation I
The boy’s first attempt at a modular story is a failure. He sits in front of the screen for hours, the blank electronic screen glowing with expectation and emptiness. He thought the words would spill out onto the page, the years spilling forward in a kaleidoscope of images. Beautiful, mysterious mothers. Little boys. Teenagers in strange homes. But he finds it difficult to put the words on the page. He could write about other subjects than his mother, truly fictitious subjects. In fact, he wants to write about them so badly. He’d like to write stories about lovers and aliens and odysseys, stories rife with discovery, with possibility. But his mother and childhood are calling him.
He works for a week straight on this story, he erases, he adds, but it needs something. He has always thought of writing as a subtractive process, like Madison Bell says, but he finds himself building something, relishes the sense of constructing something after a lifetime of things being taken.
He starts with an image of a mother in a cathedral, beatific and serene. The mother disappears. But it is the precise nature of the mother’s disappearance that he has difficulty envisioning. He tries to imagine where the mother has gone, and his mind is overwhelmed. He feels the unknown. In his first scenario, she is mentally ill, like Tchaikovsky or mad King Ludwig. There is something oddly comforting about that, as cruel as it sounds. It is an easy explanation, wrapped up neatly in cause-and-effect, tied with a bow of rationality. Mama was the captive of forces beyond her control. She had no other way to deal with it. She left because she was drawn in by that darkness. She left because she couldn’t see other options. She didn’t leave because he was somehow a flawed son, lacking so much.
In this particular scenario, she disappears altogether. Boy in the story lives with a friend and his well-meaning parents, people who welcome him, but do not hug him. People who are friendly but do not dote, who do not share parent-child rituals with him, like trips to the park, or late-night ice cream runs. Years later the boy in the story reads the paper and learns that she ends up slamming a man into a jukebox. She takes on a new name “Jukebox Betty.” Forever, she will be known for slamming a man into a jukebox. She will disappear behind the walls of an asylum, a Quixotic woman tilting at straitjackets. In the story the boy visits the mother, but all she says is that they are “special” in a moment of brief clarity.
When the boy prints out the story and reads this, it will seem glib. Too off-putting. And a little too absurd. A part of him senses that it is dishonoring his mother. This is not anywhere near the truth, he thinks sadly, crumpling page after page, feeling the weight of lies.
The boy applied to MFAs because his mother liked writers. She adored Shakespeare because she loved how he “illuminated people’s flaws” although he didn’t know what that meant at the time. He vaguely recalls her reading Nabokov. She told him he should be an artist too. Artists were creators, his mother said, giving life to things. He still remembers the hope in her eyes when she talked about it, as though her life depended upon it, as though she needed something from it all.
“I’d be proud of you,” she said.
“I want you to be proud, Mama,” he’d said, and she smiled.
He applied to a dozen programs. He didn’t know precisely what he hoped for as a writer. He was a writer of so-called “divorce in the suburbs” stories, stories about families coming apart at the seams, stories with promise, he thought. Of course, there were no knockout images, no lines like “Lolita, light of my life fire of my loins.” He liked to think his mother would be proud of his work, but he couldn’t say and that knowledge filled him with a sense that this all was futile.
Lesson In Modularity
Professor Botkin tells the boy, “Subvert time. Subvert space. Modular stories can free us from traditional chronology.” The boy already feels like time and space have been subverted. He wants to write a modular story about a boy. The boy in the story is in no way himself, even though said boy has a mother who has disappeared and is in pursuit of her. The boy (the real boy) thinks that if he could write the story, he would start with an image of the present, of the not knowing of things, and work backward to a lovely evening in a cathedral. A happy ending.
He has tried to imagine his mother many times before. He wonders how she’s changed, who she’s become, if she’s transformed into something unrecognizable. Is she still the lady in lavender? Or has she become someone else entirely? Is she still a history teacher, telling other people’s stories? Or is she telling her own? Does she even remember the boy, talk of him to other people?
He’s often imagined his mother as a writer, like himself, trying to tell people’s stories, stories of loss, of wayward fathers, of alone with pee-colored walls and stacks of bills and 13 inch TVs, and a part of him wishes it were so, so the two of them could be truly special, so he could have a kind of reference point. He could attribute his talents to her, his mama. He could know what being special truly means.
Stranger In A Strange Land
At post-workshop beers down at Bavo’s Bar, the boy feels a kind of distance from his classmates, a sense that he is a different being. He wonders if the pieces of this mosaic had been rearranged, how he might be now.
The boy sometimes thinks about his father. He remembers his mother referring to him in terms, mostly involving four-letter words, but he cannot recall much, except for one thing. An image of anger: A sort of cold bearing in the father’s eyes, surveying his wife, his son. The boy cannot recall particulars he said, but he recalls a sensation that he was a failure, but also foreign to his father, incomprehensible. Now, he wonders if he was too needy. Too sensitive. He cannot say. He wishes he knew something more of his father, his own desires, his own profession even, so he could know where they fit in. Especially his mother.
The boy wonders if the mother just needed to leave, if the father was like that shadow that could never disappear. And he wonders if there is something toxic about himself, something thoroughly irredeemable that made them both leave, if that was something they both agreed on in their own way. If the mother was simply not capable of telling her son these things.
The boy does not think he is spectacular: He has written stories that his instructors like, he is friendly with many of his classmates and he thinks he is a listener. The boy can utter the most sympathetic phrases at the appropriate times and feel them too. Of course, he does not know what it means to truly listen. He wonders if having a father would have given him any of these secrets.
Theory of Modularity II
Madison Smart Bell says “an architecture based on perfect circles or perfect squares may strangle on the constraints of its own symmetry.” The boy wonders if perfect symmetry is really all that stifling. He tries to imagine such perfection, a story that is perfectly symmetrical. Pleasantly so. A story based on the way things should be, rather than embracing all the twists, the turns, and in-betweens. How would the boy write such a story?
The boy tried to find his mother for the first time. It was spring, a season Mama always loved. “Spring is the most beautiful thing,” she’d said once. “It makes the ugliness seem inconsequential. Everything is transforming into beauty.”
He was thirteen, and he was living with his friend David and his family for the last five years in New X, Colorado, a posh community near Denver. They lived in a neat Tudor home with its antique books, its grand piano. David’s parents were a pianist and a lawyer, and they talk in terms of precision and logic, of notes on a page, or the strategy for winning a case. They rejected passion and art, even though they had collections of Hemingway and Tolstoy, and had a huge Dali painting. Rather those items were meant to convey an image, without speaking to who they were. In a way, the objects were full of lies, the boy thought. In ways, the boy felt like their way of living was a slap at his mother, an attack on their small, disorganized way of doing things. So, on his thirteenth birthday, he decided to look for his mother.
This was before the advent of Twitter and Facebook, before the Internet stripped bare the hidden men and women in every corner and every hamlet. The boy tried to find his mother. He scanned the entire phonebook for their town. For the neighboring towns. Even for the state capital, fifty miles away. Not a trace of his mother. He tried to look up his mother’s friends, the few she had. No luck. They were replaced by old ladies, by college-age girls, by men with gruff Sam Elliott voices, people who didn’t want to be disturbed, living in their own inner sanctums. Hearing those voices, a sense of anger rushed to the boy. He felt the world was going on without him, a small speck among the vibrant rhythms, people having families, raising children, losing loved ones and making sense of who they were.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you need,” David’s mother said after he told her about his failed quest. “I hope you feel at home here.”
“Give it time,” David’s father said. He exchanged a glance with his wife. “She’s probably got to work through things. Sometimes people just need to be left alone.”
“Come on, Fritz,” the mother said. She placed a willowy arm on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t go there. I’m sure that your mother loves you very much. You’re welcome as long as you need. I hope you can feel part of the family soon.”
“She’ll be back,” the boy said. David’s parents stared at each other, as if holding a secret. Later, the boy wondered if they knew some deep secret, what they were holding back. He wished they had told the truth, rather than dancing around whatever it was.
“Don’t be in a hurry,” David’s mother said. She leaned in and smiled at him. “We want to have you here. David likes having you.”
“I just wanted to find her,” the boy said.
“Sometimes,” the mother said, inhaling. “People just can’t be found. Or it takes time, you know? And when you find them, you don’t necessarily recognize them.”
“She wouldn’t change.”
“I’m just saying, you might be prepared for it,” David’s mother said “If---when she comes back.”
She is special, the boy thought, drowning out David’s mother, he is special. That much they still have.
Theory of Atemporality
Madison Smart Bell says that modular design is an effective means of demonstrating relationships, people, or leitmotifs which are “atemporal, sometimes even timeless.” Even so, time is still somewhat of a tyrant.
Betty In Twitterland
The boy tried to look his mother up for the second time. His mother. This was right before he was accepted into the MFA program, when his life seemed on the cusp of stability. He was torn between the motherless child of the past and the boy of the future, something unformed, like sculpture.
He imagined every possible scenario playing out, starting with his mother rejecting him outright. In one particularly extreme scenario, she told him he was a “mistake” in her life. In another, she apologized for disappearing. Perhaps she panicked, a young mother alone in the world. Perhaps she needed to leave to feel some sense of achievement, to pursue something. In this scenario they sat down and talked again as mother and child. The boy felt what it is and was that makes them truly special. Perhaps it was a sense of the pain, the sense of being utterly alone. Or perhaps his mother had an artistic wellspring from whence he came. Or something in between.
He searched every social medium. He scoured Twitter for Betty Connors. But there were dozens of women by that name. Elizabeth Connors. Liz Connors. And a few Bettys. None of their tweets give any hint, revealed any sign of their pasts. They tweeted about politics, about culture, and about embarrassing moments in their lives, things people could all laugh at.
Amid the inconsequential tweets, there was one that stood out. It was from an Elizabeth Connors in the town of Fort X. She was a teacher of history. Just like his mother. Of course, there were many ladies named Elizabeth Connors and an equally large proportion of history teachers.
She said, people expect too much of their mothers. Nurturers and tender caregivers. What is this, the 19th century? Ladies, embrace who you are. You are special. The words struck the boy, especially that one word. Special. He didn’t know if it’s her, and he is too afraid to find out. That word seemed like more than mere coincidence. Fort X was a mere forty miles from the boy’s MFA, which makes him feel a sense that he is on the cusp of finding and losing everything all at once.
He thought about tweeting Elizabeth Connors throughout his first year. Several times, he started to. He drafted messages. One started with, I’m looking for my mother. Her name is Betty Connors. Did you have a son named X?. Another: Why the fuck did you leave me? So sad. Your son X. And a third draft read, If you are my mother, Elizabeth, tell me about yourself. We are special people, after all.
But before he could click send, he felt that word weighing him down, holding back from the future: Special. That word that once held possibility and beauty now hinted at other possibilities. He wondered if he was actually special, if his mother really thought that about him, and this not knowing felt like an even deeper loss, with no end.
Modular, Permutation II
The boy decides to write the easiest permutation of his modular story. There are multiple permutations and possibilities, spread out like colonies. But the boy longs for the most convenient. The story with the happy-ish ending. He knows it’s a cheap move, the one any seasoned fiction writer would detest. He knows it’s a mistake, but Professor Botkin has encouraged him to try all the possibilities. He wants to feel happiness, if only upon the page, that sense of completion. Shape. Being.
In this story, the mother comes back. She emails him out of the blue, and they end up talking over lunch, in some fancy, beau monde type of restaurant. It’s the sort of place with fancy arched ceilings, a place where people mind their own business and mustachioed pianists play Debussy somnolently.
Mother and son talk about the past. In this version of the story, the mother had to leave. She was sick, she tells the boy, drawing each word out with a certain reluctance. Not sick in the physical sense, but in the sense of being alone, trying to negotiate a world built upon unwritten norms and expectations. Behave this way, she tells her son, be a nurturer, a caregiver, what-have-you. And the boy, in the story feels a kind of anger, peppering her with questions, even as a part of him understands this, thinks of the expectations foisted upon him too.
The story ends with the mother and son exchanging an awkward hug, while the piano player provides them with a pleasant Tchaikovsky waltz. They struggle to express love, but she tells him he was special, smiling at him, like in the olden days, the halcyon days, a smile connoting possibilities unspoken. They depart, with the scent of the mother’s lavender perfume still fresh in the boy’s nostrils, along with the fresh spring air. The boy likes to think off the page they will meet again, perhaps simply for lunch. But perhaps they will reestablish intimacy, tile by tile, until she invites him to her new place, perhaps a spacious home, where they will fill in their missing years, reveal their secrets with ease over glasses of wine, over banter that is irreverent.
The real boy feels a kind of emptiness, a kind of sense that the world is a series of misfortunes. His financial aid is in jeopardy because he has a B in a literature class. He has been drinking a great deal. He feels a rush drinking, but the aftermath is ten times worse. He feels a kind of sickness, not just from the ale, but from the realities crashing upon him like some mighty storm, reminding him that all the euphoria, the hopes, were little more than mirages.
“There’s nothing wrong with a hopeful story,” Professor Botkin tells the boy when they meet to look at this particular draft. “But a happy story is another matter…it’s too easy. You want to dig deep. You want to know why the mother acted as she did. You understand? Let the reader understand. That’s key here. You’re dissecting the mother, as it were.”
The boy nods. Professor Botkin surveys the boy, taking in his tousled brown hair, his hazel eyes. He wonders if she suspects his past. Where is the line between autobiography and fiction? He doesn’t want to be pathetic, spilling out his past on the page.
The boy is sitting in Betty’s Coffee Shop, near campus. He likes the wholesomeness of the place with its sky-blue walls. There is something out of the 50s here, a fallen world. Even the music adds to the sense of possibility and belonging. Tony Bennett croons of losing his heart in San Francisco. Ella Fitzgerald croons about being misty and so much in love. There is something unabashedly cheerful here and yet something too cheerful. The boy will not argue. Sometimes, illusions are the best.
He is trying to work on his modular story, version III, when he sees a mother and a son talking, among the student crowd, hunched over their laptops in varying states of misery. About what, he cannot tell. They are too far away. The mother is wearing lavender and this attracts the boy. The mother of the other boy is smiling, gesturing animatedly, but she has a kind of weariness in her ocean-blue eyes and she keeps looking around the room, as if distracted by some unseen force. The boy wonders what the trajectory of things has been for her. Has she lost a husband, perhaps by his own choice? Has she found it difficult to be a mother?
The boy imagines the mother is a professional. A businesswoman or a lawyer perhaps. She has worked hard. She is someone who must add figures and make sense of them. She must make sense of fragments. Perhaps she is unable to add up the figures. He feels a kind of sympathy.
The boy wonders if the mother sees her son as an impediment to things. If this is how his own mother looked at him. An impediment to something, to some vast dream. He wonders what she wanted to be when she was younger. An actress? A singer? She never spoke much about her own past. He knows only that she grew up in the town of New Y, Ohio, went to college in Illinois, and that her father worked in a steel mill, a place his mother referred to as a “giant dump.”
“The past is a nasty nuisance,” she’d said, laughing, when he asked once.
The boy wonders what his mother wanted to be, what her innermost dreams were. She was a teacher. She liked to talk ideas, to talk history. She loved writing. Yet the boy wonders if this wasn’t a sort of layer concealing another layer, like those Russian dolls.
Did he demand too much? The thought strikes him like a bell. He thinks he simply wanted what any other kid wanted, the web of love, of a mother affirming his uniqueness. He wanted what he has seen from afar. But a part of him wonders now if he should even think about all this. Perhaps she is happy in her own way. Perhaps to question is to disrupt things, to make them even worse. Yet, this back and forth, between mother and son in the coffee shop is an interaction. They have been together this whole time, he thinks. She has not left. That much is a marvel, in any case.
The boy’s mother takes him to the park at dusk. The park is near their apartment, a place full of yellowed grass and creaking swings. A month before she leaves. The sky is streaked in lavender and gold and orange, a palette of colors that soothe the boy. He thinks his mother is soothed too, especially with her broad, knowing smile, a smile different than before.
“I feel free,” she says. “Wouldn’t you love to be up there? Just look down on people and not have to do anything at all.”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“You want to be down here?” she said. “Even if I weren’t here.”
She looks at him, frowning. In this moment, the boy thinks he detects something. A pinch of disappointment, certainly. But something deeper. A sense of betrayal perhaps. He will not be able to put his finger on it.
Mrs. Connors, take II
The boy decides to go to Fort X to visit Mrs. Connors.
Modular Story III
The boy writes a dark story where he runs into the mother years later. She does not recognize him. They are in a bar and she spills out her stories to him. She has taken up a new life, a new man, a man who has promised her the world, but failed to deliver it. To give the story a certain sad elegance, he sets the story in Pennsylvania in 1960. He makes his character a successful writer.
The boy cannot help but wonder if this is true, if one can forget people so easily. He wonders if he will ever forget his mother. A part of him feels a wave of shame that he wants to.
Visiting Mrs. Connors
The boy goes to visit Mrs. Connors. He goes at dusk. This way he will not be conspicuous and can slip out if necessary. He is not certain that he can actually go and talk to her, to find out if she is the Betty Connors who was once his beloved Mama.
A part of him wants it not to be his mother. Part of him desires this with a kind of intensity that seems to take hold of him. Driving to the house, he tries to envision scenarios where this is not the case. He envisions a stranger opening the door, smiling at him with a kind of friendly wariness and he imagines a sort of nervousness evaporating from him, that vessel of expectations depleted in a moment. He envisions older women, dowagers, retirees, young couples inhabiting this house.
He envisions them saving him from the darkest of possibilities: The Betty Connors at this address is his mother, this woman who thinks motherhood was foisted upon her, that he is just as part of the tired old world as his father once was. He feels dread rising, tries not to think of the possibility that she might reject him. To be rejected at twenty-seven is worse, the boy thinks, because you are attuned to the nuances of things, to the fact that people leave simply because they fucking can, because it is an impulse
The house is a nice yellow two-story with a porch swing. Flowerpots line the balconies, and the boy imagines growing up here. Everything seems so orderly, in place. There is a light on in the living room, warm, welcoming, and the boy imagines having dinner with the mother there. He imagines that she never left, that they would be discussing his classes, his writing, his social life. They would talk and laugh and banter, he imagines, two special people.
The boy watches and waits. The deep purple steals over the house once again, bathing him in its tenderness. The moon rises from a distant perch. He watches through the window, waiting for a sign, some moment for action. He doesn’t know what. It’s not like she’s going to come out and greet him, as though nothing has changed. It might not even be his mother, but a stranger living her own life, facing her own struggles.
For God-knows-how long, there is nothing. There is no action on the street, rows of Toyotas and Subarus sitting silently, as if to establish their own unimpeachability. The wind picks up, blowing branches around as if in a tempestuous anger. A train whistles from the distance.
Then he sees her. A slender silhouette moving about the living room. Perhaps she is cleaning up before dinner. Perhaps she is staying busy, trying to simply stay afloat. Mrs. Connors is a teacher after all. She has tweeted about it. For a moment, she stops at the window and sees him and the boy thinks they make a connection.
The boy writes a story. It begins with the lines, “Once upon a time, a boy tried to find his mother, but she disappeared.” The words stare back at him on the page, heavy, and weighed down with something. Perhaps it’s the years of not knowing. And perhaps it’s the years ahead, the years of things yet to be formed that scare him. It’s the sense of not knowing, the sense that no one is going to tell him.
Almost Arrested Development
While staring at Mrs. Connors’ house, a police car pulls up. The boy feels a sense of darkness, a sense of shame thinking about himself here and now, a sense that his life has taken a darker turn, that he is on the road to becoming someone worse than he imagined. He must look like an intruder. And in some ways, he is.
An officer motions for the boy to get out of the car. The boy complies.
“Son?” the officer says, walking up to him. “You want to tell me what the hell you were doing?”
The boy stares at the officer, who has a rugged, round face and piercing blue eyes. He surveys the boy with a certain judgment. It is not contempt, necessarily. Rather, the boy thinks, the officer cannot make sense of the boy. Perhaps he wants to see something other than an intruder. Perhaps the officer has seen so much sadness on the job, he wants things to be different. Positive.
“I was sitting in my car enjoying the evening,” the boy says, as lame as it sounds.
The officer arches an eyebrow.
“The lady said you were lurking here,” the officer says. “She says you made her uncomfortable. Now I’m not trying to judge, but what the hell are you doing?”
The boy stares through the window. He can see her staring, this Mrs. Connors. He looks for some hint that she is his mother, that this is all a mistake. Surely she can see him. Recognize him. But she just stands there, still, as if waiting for something, as he is. They are both trying to make sense of all this.
“I was trying to find a friend,” the boy says. “I thought she lived here.”
The officer stares for a long time then nods. Maybe he wants to believe, but the boy notices a kind of knowing in his eyes. Perhaps the officer knows that the boy is looking for something he cannot find. Perhaps the officer wants to offer some advice. Maybe the officer feels a kind of pity. Perhaps he understands completely.
“Well,” the officer says, motioning for the boy to get back in his car. “Try not to make the same mistake. It can be damn costly.”
The boy nods, getting into his car. He slowly pulls away, waiting for something, for some sign, some signal even that this is his mother. He just wants some sign that she is alive and happy. But there is no mother running out of the house tearfully to make amends, to explain things. No sign that this house is one only his mother could live in. The boy turns on the radio, the morose tinkling notes of Debussy’s “Claire De Lune” filling the car. As the house becomes a yellow blob on the horizon, the music rising, the boy begins to cry, his tears overwhelming him, the wetness setting in.
The boy holds out hope for this story, Modular IV, as he calls it. He has tried to shape it, reshape it. He assembles, reassembles the pieces and turns the story in for workshop.
“It has a good foundation,” Professor Botkin says. “But it needs a sense of internal logic.”
The boy wonders how you give logic to that which is illogical. The only thing that seems logical at this point are the things he cannot have. Life has denied him a mother, success, so much. How else can he tell it? Perhaps this is a story he simply cannot tell, a truth he cannot bear to write. Or read.
The boy walks into the cathedral again for the first time in twenty years. He is alone and he feels a kind of fear, walking through those portals. He sits amongst the arches and the stained-glass windows at dusk. This time he only feels the sense that he is small, among the stained-glass depictions of Biblical events and the huge organ pipes. The cathedral seems like a plethora of mysteries stitched together in stone and glass, things that make no sense at all. He wonders what plan its architects envisioned in 1903. How did they see it fitting together? How did they change their plans?
A priest walks in, attired in green. She has a kind of graceful gait, a gait that reminds the boy of his mother. She smells of incense and the faintest hint of perfume.
“Are you all right?” she says. “Enjoying our beautiful cathedral?”
“Yes, Mother,” the boy says. He thinks this is how one addresses a female priest.
“Have you been before?” she says. The boy notices her British accent, oddly reassuring, like some BBC program.
“Yes,” he says and smiles. “Once.”
The priest stands in the shadows, watching the boy. The boy shuts his eyes. He tries to pretend that he is special. He wants to believe. He wants to feel something, anything. He wants to tell a story of communion, a story he can believe, even if it’s just words.