A Son Without Compassion
by Michael Lockett
Jeff zips off the exit toward home. He’s wracked with visions of his mother’s rickety house on the hillside. It’s the sore thumb of the block. Not the Wal-Mart, John Deer version of nice. Not the neighbors’ tidy two story, vinyl-sided houses. They all have hanging baskets of geraniums, pristine grass, and pinwheels blowing in flower beds of petunias. Jeff’s mom’s yard is overgrown and full of junk.
It’s twenty more minutes of travel and dread to Clearview, the little rust belt town where Jeff’s mom lives. When he arrives, he parks his car on his mom’s street. He gets a good look at the place. It looms over Jeff like a monster. It’s worse every visit. Always more stuff. It’s hard to believe how things have gone downhill since Jeff’s dad died. Jeff’s dad was a handyman who kept things tidy. He had a heart-attack in front of his work shed in the side yard. Jeff was seven years old when it happened.
Straight out of the car, Jeff notices how his dad’s work shed has caved in the center. The roof lays over its trusses like a wet blanket. Next to the shed, the riding mower sticks out of a big hole in a weathered tarp. It’s seized-up in the grass. The grass is knee-high around it. It reminds Jeff of a gallery crawl he recently attended in Pittsburgh. One of the exhibits had a black and white photo of rusty old cars. They were bumper to bumper like a traffic jam in a forest. The title of it was The Futility of Life.
On the house porch, there's a sofa also under a tarp. It surfaced a few years back, shortly after Jeff moved out. Jeff’s mother says she loves the retro floral print on it. She says she wants to get the living room cleared out before she brings it inside. It has to be dry-rotted by now. Can’t apply logic though, Jeff reminds himself. The sofa’s piled high with a mountain of junk, what Jeff’s mom calls her thrift store treasures. There’s shelves to a bookcase, a walker, a tire that might fit her car (nearly like new, she says). There are bags of clothes, bins of pots and pans. There’s another bin of toys, mostly old He-Man action figures. Jeff’s mom says they're hot ticket collectibles. Folks on Ebay would pay top dollar for them. She just has to figure out how to list them on the site. All the junk blocks the living room window behind it, and it’s been shut up for years. Jeff’s mother started to bring random shit home shortly after his dad passed. She plays up its usefulness, what she will do with it, but never does. This has only gotten worse over time, and by now, she’s a full-fledged hoarder.
Jeff takes a deep breath up the steps that lead to the porch. Jeff looks over all the junk. Jeff hasn't been home in four months, even though it’s only three hours from Pittsburgh, where he now lives. Jeff steps into the yard with his hand over his eyes to block out the sun. He inspects the roof. A large chunk of tar paper has blown off the front corner. As he looks up, he steps to his right to get a better look. Jeff stumbles backward over a stroller in the yard. “God damn it,” he curses. He just catches his balance before he falls down the steep hill.
Most of the old tar paper is cracked and rippling off the roof. A good storm, and it’ll be gone. Jeff’s patched the roof to hell and back, but it all needs to be completely redone. Too bad Jeff’s mom doesn’t have money. She lives off his dad’s survivor benefits. She says she gets some other money from Social Security, but Jeff’s not entirely sure for what. Maybe being crazy. Maybe her bad back.
Jeff’s feels defeated, but he’s determined to patch the worst spot on the roof. He’s purchased the stuff to repair it, and he hopes the tarpaper hasn’t gotten ruined in the shed. The house is a money pit. Jeff certainly doesn’t have the money to fix it. He’s a dishwasher at Chili’s and barely gets by. Jeff moved to Pittsburgh for culinary school after high school. However, he dropped out in his second term. He might re-enroll. Cooking has always been his thing. It’s the tests he can’t pass. Plus, the line cook and three of the waiters at Chili’s are distinguished alum. It doesn't say much for the degree.
Jeff's mom sticks her head out the front door. She smiles and says, “Jeffie” to greet him. She is a hummingbird of a woman, just shy of fifty, with a pixie cut. She steps onto the porch. She has on a dress over pants—a mix match of polka dots and stripes, an ensemble that really completes the package. Jeff imagines a run-way voice-over for his mom, Cindy. In this versatile number, Cindy breezes from her days feeding stray cats to romantic evenings sifting through the neighbors’ trash. Jeff can’t help but laugh. That’s only funny for a moment though. Probably because of what happened to his dad, Jeff fears she could drop dead any day.
“Should I be expecting a sibling?” Jeff asks. He turns. He gives the stroller a nudge with his boot. It rolls a bit across the yard. “Damn near killed myself on the thing. You need to get rid of it.”
“No, sir. I just picked that up from a yard sale. Five bucks. You never know when someone will need one. You know what those cost new?” Jeff’s mom asks. She picks up the lid of a tin garbage can on the porch, where she stores cat food. She pulls out a handful.
No arguing with the woman, Jeff thinks. He watches his mom toss the cat food onto the grass, like one would toss bird seed. The cats, mostly feral strays that have gravitated to his mother’s house over the years and multiplied, appear from the junk in the yard. Three cats crawl from the cluttered sofa on the porch. They give a big yawn and stretch. They scurry off the porch for the food in the grass. It’s competitive eating. Their little sharp teeth crunch up the dried bits.
“If I can keep the rain out, I can get this place in shape,” Jeff’s mom says. She reaches back into the can. Then, she tosses another handful of food.
“I don’t know, Mom,” Jeff says. “That roof is bad.”
I call bullshit, is what Jeff really thinks. Fixing the leaks won’t change a thing. He’d never say it right out, even if it’s God’s truth, though. So, Jeff gets one of his dad’s old ladders from between the fence and shed, the same spot where Jeff’s dad left them the day he died. He gets tar paper, a bucket of tar, a hammer, and nails from the shed. Luckily none of the supplies has gotten too wet, in spite of a hole in the center of its roof.
“I call spotter,” Jeff’s mom says.
She sounds like a kid playing a game. This reminds Jeff of how she was when he was growing up. He, more so, saw his mom as a playmate. She always had a thing about aliens, and she and Jeff would search the night sky for UFOs. She had Jeff convinced every jet, every star, every blip in the sky was an extraterrestrial spotting. Sure, he believed all the stuff when he was little. Then, around age eight, after his dad died, Jeff decided all the alien stuff was a bunch of bull, because…it was. He would still go along with it though, since it seemed important to his mom. Then, around age ten or eleven, it just got annoying. Seemed it was all his mom ever talked about, almost manically. He’d say, “Mom. I think that’s just a plane. Mom, I think that’s just a star,” to steer her off the topic. Then, she’d argue with him. “No. It’s not,” she’d say and point out the odd shape of an aircraft. However, Jeff saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just the standard issue American aircraft.
Finally, one day, Jeff had enough. On the porch, Jeff's mom came out with her binoculars to search for UFOs. Jeff said he was tired of hearing about alien crap. Jeff’s mom stormed into the house. He could hear her inside. It sounded like she was crying. After that, she never mentioned anything about aliens or space again. Jeff tried to apologize. He even said he saw a strange orange light in the sky, but his mother just shrugged him off.
Around the same time, the other kids on the block asked, “What’s with your mom?” Seemed they noticed she was a little off too. Jeff made it a point to hang out at other kids’ houses. That way he didn’t have to explain her odd behaviors to them. Besides, his friends’ parents always seemed to like taking Jeff on. Jeff milked every bit of their sympathy. He always looked like he was having the time of his life in his friend’s clean, wall-to-wall carpeted houses. He’d tell his mom not to pick him up after little league practice in her old Chevette. The car was cluttered, rusty, and reeked like gas fumes. Instead, Jeff would soak up the air conditioning in his friends’ parents' minivans. Most evenings, he’d bail on a Coco Puffs for dinner out on the porch steps at home. Instead, he’d head to his friend’s houses. He’d splash in their above ground pools while their dads barbequed at the grill. Deep down, though, Jeff felt awful for ditching his ma. So just as his friends made plans for sleepovers, Jeff would head home. Always. Even if he had to walk alone in the dark. Even if his friends couldn’t understand why.
As Jeff climbs the ladder, his mom talks to one of her cats. Jeff looks down at her.
“What are we going to do, Scruffy? Why don’t you get up there and help Jeffie?"
She stands with her hands on her hips in that get-up of hers. The cat circles her ankles. Jeff can’t help but laugh endearingly at her. He shakes his head.
Aside from his nerves on the pitchy roof, the repair goes smoothly. It only takes about an hour. Jeff heads down the ladder with the tar bucket, hammer and nails, when he hears a “whoo-hoo.”
Jeff looks over his shoulder. His mom puts her finger to her mouth pantomiming a gag. “Eugenia,” his mom mouths. Then she rolls her eyes.
Jeff’s mom and the neighbor Eugenia Yarger have been at war over the state of her place for years. There’ve been several fines from the township for property code violations. The complaints are all anonymous. Jeff’s just as sure as his mom Eugenia’s the source. Part of Jeff wishes Eugenia would back off, but then again, he feels bad for Eugenia. She has to live next to the eyesore, after all.
If it wouldn’t look obvious, Jeff would climb back up the ladder to avoid Eugenia. Instead, he keeps going down it. He steps off the last rung, firm on the ground, as his mother and Eugenia greet each other. The way they say each other’s names is civil at the surface, but it takes on the undertone of two rival Aztec warriors. If it weren’t for small-town Christian values, Jeff’s sure, one would sacrifice the other by ripping out her heart.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Eugenia says. She stands at the edge of her perfectly cut property line. Jeff’s mom’s grass nearly reaches her knees. “God bless you. God bless you for helping out your momma. You’re a good boy, Jeffery. Good, indeed. Mom’s blessed to have you. You do what you can. Lord knows. How long you in for?”
“Ah, he’s alright,” Jeff’s mom says. She crinkles her nose and swats her hand in the air.
“Thanks, Ma,” Jeff says. “I’m just in for the day.”
Jeff’s mom puts her hands on her hips. She keeps her back to Eugenia.
Eugenia wears a pink plaid housedress. Her hair is rolled tight to her scalp in her usual Saturday curlers. She’s prepping that hair volume for Sunday worship where she plays piano up the street at the First United Methodist. Jesus, Jeff thinks. You’ve never heard a meaner rendition of Up From the Grave He Arose. Then he thinks, shit, Eugenia looks just as crazy as his mom.
“That’s a shame,” Eugenia says. “There’s so much to do.”
Jeff’s quick to turn away from Eugenia and his mom. The way Eugenia’s words land, he’s sure, they’re about to square off.
“Oh, here we go,” Jeff’s mom says. “It’s always the same old, same old with you. Now, what’s your problem?”
“Jeffie’s more than welcome to use our mower. I’m worried about snakes in this high grass. Maybe you can get some of that rubbish off the porch too. That’s a rodent’s paradise.”
“I got cats, Eugenia! Cats! You’re worried about snakes. Rodents. But you called the township on me because I have too many cats!”
Jeff walks away toward the shed, glad he’s got a can of tar to put back.
Eugenia ignores Jeff’s mom. She speaks to Jeff as he walks away. “God bless you, Jeffery. You know if you ever need a decent place to stay when you’re in, we’ve got a spare room.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, Ms. Eugenia,” Jeff says without missing a step, without looking back, without meaning a bit of it. “But I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Well, aren’t you the giver. You operating an orphanage for grown men with moms?” Jeff hears his mother ask Eugenia.
Jeff keeps going for the shed.
The women really lay into each other.
In the shed, Jeff looks through the hole in the sagging roof, up into the blue sky. Eugenia’s dig (and Jeff’s sure that’s what it is) about a place to stay really bothers him. Lord knows, that’s why he day trips. He hasn’t set foot in his mom’s house for two years on account of the condition inside. It’s something he and his mom have never talked about. There are plenty of places in town where Jeff could crash, for sure, but not a single one is home. Truth is, Jeff has scheduling preference at Chili’s. He’s off every Sunday and Monday, but he’ll never tell a soul back home.
When it gets quiet, Jeff peeks his head out of the shed. He sees Eugenia storm off. His mom’s on the porch opening a new tarp out of its package.
“Help me put this up,” Jeff’s mom says. She stretches the tarp open in her arms and holds it up to the side of the porch facing Eugenia’s. “Maybe this will block Eugenia out.”
Jeff helps her out.
Later that evening, Jeff and his mom pull into the lot of the Clearview diner. Besides pizza, it's the only place to grab a bite in town.
In the car, Jeff’s mom pulls an aerosol deodorant from her purse. She sprays her pits before they go inside. Then, she hands it to Jeff, like its good pot or something, like hey, you want a hit.
They both laugh.
“Get your feminine antiperspirant out of here,” Jeff says. He holds back his breath from the smell.
“Hey, It’s magnolia blossom,” she says, as she gets out of the car. “You should be crawling out of your skin to smell like one.”
Jeff and his mom walk down the narrow aisle of the diner. It’s the usual cast of home perms and overalls. The townies seem to all pause for a moment at the sight of Jeff and his mom. They’re quick, though, to steer their eyes away from the town crazy, at least with Jeff looking out behind her. He imagines the whispers behind their backs. Go ahead. I dare you to say a word, Jeff thinks as he pursues the diners.
Jeff and his mom take their seats. She puts her hand softly on his arm. She doesn’t say anything when she does this, but Jeff takes the gesture like, hey, it’s good to see you, son.
She tells the waitress, who looks like a high school kid, “Better be good grub. You’re serving America’s next top chef, you know.”
Jeff is embarrassed. He’s never told his mom he’s dropped out of culinary school. When his mother asks him about his classes, he says they’re fine. Nothing to really talk about. He's quick to move on to other things.
Jeff’s frustration from the day seems to fade at his mother’s touch. He feels the weight of every time she’s told him he’s the love of her life. Being with her, for a moment, at least, feels good. But Jeff would give a million dollars if she had someone else to dote on. Maybe a handsome, genius little brother. Hell, even a burn-out boyfriend with a loud motorcycle would do, if it meant there was someone to share the burden of her.
Jeff decides to bring up the house, just after the waitress serves their sandwiches and fries.
“What do you think a new roof costs?” Jeff asks. He reaches for the salt and pepper. “I’m sure, more than you and I have put together.”
Jeff’s mom swats her hand in the air, like she’s shooing off flies.
“Ever think about selling? The house would be a great fixer-upper for a young family in town. You could probably even turn a little profit. Find something more manageable, like a nice little apartment,” Jeff says.
“Pssst. Yeah right. And what about all my stuff? Besides, who’d take care of all the cats?”
Jeff wants to ask, how many cats in the past year his mom has scooped up off the street with a shovel or found bloated, dead out back. He’s sure Eugenia Yarger’s husband has been poisoning them, since Eugenia complains they piss on her porch. To boot, Eugenia's husband once told Jeff that antifreeze and canned tuna was a sure recipe to get rid of pesky cats. Unfortunately, there’s never been any sure proof of this, and Jeff can think of two or three other people on the block capable of such a horrible thing.
“How many cats do you have now?” he asks.
“I’m down to nine,” Jeff’s mom says. “Thanks to Eugenia and her husband. If I ever get proof. Besides, the house is worth something. When I die, you can sell the place to pay for my funeral.”
Jeff’s mom says this as she eyes up her cheesesteak. She uses both hands to close the bun and lifts it to her mouth.
Jeff’s speechless. He watches his mom bite into her cheesesteak. Onions fall from the end of it onto her plate.
Jeff takes a bite of his own buffalo chicken sandwich.
“Did I tell you?” Jeff’s mom says with a mouthful. “So, I’m sleeping in my chair in the living room, and I wake up to this crinkling sound, like plastic wrappers.” She places her sandwich on her plate. She wiggles her hands in front of her mouth like a critter. "There he was in the corner of the living room. A raccoon. His eyes glowing. You know how their eyes glow at night, Jeffie? That little bugger stole a box of my Little Debbie brownies. Even the cats are just looking—you know the way the cats’ ears sort of perk up, like, man, who's this weird looking cat, right?”
She puts her fingers to the top of her head like cat ears, and she wiggles them. “I call the raccoon Brownie. Ah Jeff, he’s the cutest thing,” She says. She covers her mouth with her hand as she chuckles.
Jeff realizes he’s frozen mid bite. His eyes feel wide.
Jeff swallows hard and says, “Doesn’t sound safe. Where you think it’s coming in?”
Jeff figures once they get back to the house, he'll look in the cellar, find the hole and block it. He hates to admit it, but Eugenia’s right about the rubbish attracting varmint.
“Who knows,” she says with a shrug. “Besides, Brownie's harmless. He’s welcome to come and go as he pleases.” She takes another big bite of her cheesesteak.
Jeff hasn’t seen his mom this giddy in some time. Not since her excesses on UFOs.
After dinner, Jeff drops his mom off at the house before he heads to Pittsburgh. He tries to shake off the idea of his mom squatting in the living room with a raccoon. But he doesn’t look into it. It’s her house, and she’s perfectly fine with it.
Jeff kisses her goodbye. He feels the tickle of peach fuzz on her cheek when he does.
Jeff can never call his mom. The landline has long been out. She has a government funded cell, but unless she's on it, she keeps it turned off. No matter how many times Jeff has shown her how to check her voicemail, she swears she can’t remember how. It’s become a running joke. This comes up again during her routine eight o’clock Sunday evening phone call with Jeff. Jeff’s a pacer on the phone—well, at least when he talks to his mom. She asks Jeff again how to access her voicemail. She says she’s expecting an important call from Social Security for a benefits review.
“There’s a little envelope icon at the top of the screen on your phone,” Jeff says. He swipes the dirty clothes on the floor by his bed out of the way with his foot.
“OK,” Jeff’s mom says. “Let me get a pen and pad to write this down.” Jeff hears his mom riffle around the house. “Where the hell are all my pens?”
Jeff hears drawers, things falling. His mother sifts through papers. She lists random things she comes across in her search.
“Oh, there’s my tennis bracelet. Just needs a clasp. I thought I lost it when it broke. Cool, my mammogram, be sure and get yours water bottle from the health bazar at the medical center. I wondered where I put that. You know, I have pink lawn flamingos here. I found them in Mrs. Mayhue’s garbage when her kids cleaned out her house after she croaked. Can you believe it? I found three. I think they’re the originals. These things sell online for $20 bucks a pop...Awww, Jeff. It’s a picture of you in your little league uniform, when you were eight, maybe nine. I remember the time you struck out and cried. So after the game, I took you for ice cream at Scoops. Remember that?”
“I don’t remember that,” Jeff says. “At all.”
“You were playing that team in blue and gray. What was that team?”
“I don’t know,” Jeff says. “My voicemail messages to you are probably floating in the galaxy somewhere.
As soon as it escapes his mouth, Jeff regrets his poor choice of the galaxy for a point of reference. Ever since the UFO debacle, Jeff’s been sure not to reference anything related to aliens or the universe or space.
Then, Jeff’s mom says, “Tell you what, you yell a message into the sky later. I’ll tell you what I hear, after it crosses the galaxy."
After Jeff hangs up the phone, he actually sticks his head out the open window of his apartment. He yells, "You’re nuts, woman" into the night sky.
The next time Jeff talks to his mom, he asks, “Did you get my message?” He clears an ashtray and beer cans off the sticky, carved-up coffee table in his apartment.
“Now, Jeffie. You know I can’t figure out my voicemail.”
“No. The one I yelled out into the sky.”
“Jeffie! You didn’t do that, really? Naw,” she says. She laughs. “Oh wait, hold on a minute. I didn’t get it directly, but I intercepted it from the aliens. They say, “Jeff, you’re the one who’s nuts!””
Jeff’s not sure whether he should be amused or horrified. He’s both. What are the chances she’d come back with the similar message?
“Oh did I mention…” Jeff’s mom segues. “I’ve been feeding Brownie chips. Right out of my hand.”
Jeff hears that spark in his mother’s voice, the one he saw in her eyes when she first mentioned Brownie. This makes Jeff worry he’s opened Pandora’s box.
“Mom, you shouldn’t be messin’ with that varmint.”
“Varmint! I’ll have you know, Brownie is a class-act raccoon. Only varmint around here’s that two-legged snake next door, Eugenia. She called the township on me again. The code guy said if I don’t get the yard cleaned up in a month, it’s another hundred dollar fine.”
Jeff thinks of how many fines his mother’s racked up. She says the magistrate only has her pay ten dollars a month based on her modest income. Jeff can’t help but think, as the fines mount, she’s got to be near a lien on the property.
He almost bring it up, but instead, there’s an awkward silence between him and his mom and—
“Earth to Jeffie,” she says. Jeff imagines she cups her hand around her mouth mining a loudspeaker.
Jeff’s certain she’ll go down the rabbit hole with the alien thing, like when he was eight. What should he do? What should he do?
“Shoot,” Jeff says. “I got another call coming through. Probably work. I better go. Love you, Ma.” But Jeff can feel his mom linger on the line. “I’ll see when I can come in to help with the yard.”
Jeff stacks his own dominoes. He thinks over his schedule. He wonders how he'll find the money for gas or the time.
“Hey, thanks,” Jeff’s mom says. “Love you. Bye.”
Jeff and some friends go clubbing on a Saturday night downtown, Pittsburgh. The stage lights flash red, blue, yellow, and green in sync to the thumping base of dance music. A pretty brunette chats Jeff up at the bar. He buys her a beer. When she asks what Jeff does, he tells her he’s a dishwasher at Chili’s. She says she has to go to the bathroom, she’ll be right back. Jeff’s eager to keep talking. However, she walks out of the women's room, then straight to the other end of the bar. It’s as though the two have never met. It’s a slight brush with romance, something at twenty one Jeff has never, ever gotten too near. He can’t help but think she ditched him because he’s just a dishwasher. It’s a hard taste of people’s hang-ups. The Bacardi and Cokes go down smooth until two a.m. Jeff wakes with an oh shit in the morning. He flies into Chili’s twenty minutes late. He realizes early into his shift he still has a buzz. He can smell the cigarette smoke and the booze coming out of his own pores on the dish line. He grows nauseous, as the day wears on. He gets some aspirin from the office, and he drinks Cokes to ward off a full-on hangover.
Jeff takes a spatula off the edge of the counter to wash. Ginny, the sorry old biddy who works the grill, the type of downer everyone on shift sort of works around, goes ape-shit on him. Jeff's not sure why. There are at least three others hanging clean on the rack in front of her face.
“What’s it there for? Good luck?” Jeff asks. He puts the spatula right back in the same spot. How can someone be so uptight? he wonders.
When Jeff takes his break, Ginny’s in the breakroom. She lines up a fork and knife and a Diet Sprite. She bites into her plain chicken sandwich (just a patty on a bun). She peers over her glasses to read a gossip rag in her usual spot. It’s as though everything she does implies, mine, mine, mine. Ginny’s a life of order and misery. Jeff considers, at least, there’s a loving freeness with his mom, even if she’s a mess.
Jeff sticks his head out the door for a smoke, sure to steer clear of Ginny.
Jeff’s cell phone rings. Eugenia Yarger’s number comes up on the ID. God damn! Eugenia’s made Jeff’s number the complaint line for his mom. Eugenia usually starts her calls with words like heartbreaking, worry, and Christian duty. This is the version of Eugenia who sends over warm meals to his mother in Tupperware she’ll never get back. However, it's just a matter of time before the complaints start. This is the other version of Eugenia. The one who always has an angle, the one who keeps calling the township on Jeff’s mom. Jeff jumps at the opportunity to put Eugenia on speaker phone in the break-room. He expects, like last time, his coworkers will gather around, bent-over, stifling laughter while Eugenia prays in her pitchy voice to the Lord Jesus in Heaven for little Jeffie and his momma.
“It’s Eugenia,” Jeff calls out to his friends Destiny and Jake who are earshot in the kitchen.
They rush to the door smiling.
“Sweet,” Jake says.
But when Jeff answers, Eugenia gets right to it.
“Jeffie. When are you coming home? For Christ’s sake. Your mom’s really lost it.”
This is a first. Eugenia’s angry toward Jeff. Her tone conjures up the image of someone hurling stones. Jeff notices Destiny and Jake stall in the door, their mouths gaped wide open.
Jeff’s amiss with his usual go-to which is, “There isn’t a whole lot I can do.” He’s not sure what it is, exactly, Eugenia’s getting at.
“You need to stop making excuses," Eugenia says.
Jeff can feel his stomach sink. His heart races. He swallows. Eugenia’s stones hit pretty hard.
“And you don’t even know it, Jeffie. You don’t even know it. Poor thing's been wandering around town all hours of the night with a stroller,” Eugenia says.
“Whaaaa—” Jeff starts to ask.
“A stroller, with who knows what in it! Probably a dead rat!”
It’s then that Jeff blows his stack with the biggest line of muther F-, cock-sucking, mind your own goddamn business, that’s ever come out of his mouth. However, Eugenia gets the last word, and man, it’s one hell of a blow.
“You know what you are. You…” she says, “are a son without compassion.”
“Compassion,” Jeff yells. “You know everything I’ve done for my mom—”
Jeff hears a click and the dead tone of the receiver.
Destiny and Jake cover their mouths.
Destiny asks, “Jeff, are you alright?”
At the same time, Ginny peeks over the top of her gossip rag with a scowl.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” Jeff asks.
Jeff feels dreadful, out-of-sorts as he scrapes bits of food from plates into the garbage bin and hoses ketchup from the serving trays. It helps him a bit to apologize to Ginny, even though she shrugs and tightens her lips, when Jeff does this.
Jeff heads for Clearview at four o’clock straight from his shift, still in his stained red Chili’s shirt with the pepper logo on the front. The evening summer air whips through the car window as he zips down the highway. He sips a Mountain Dew and gnaws away at a box of Little Debbie Nutty Bars. His mom is heavy on his mind. The thing about the stroller? Why? As the cars flash by, he thinks over his last phone conversation with his mom. She said she hadn’t seen Brownie. Jeff can’t shake the idea that she ended up scraping Brownie from the road with a shovel, maybe after he was hit by a car. He envisions his mom singing lullabies to a dead raccoon that’s bundled up in a baby blanket. Jeff’s convinced, after years of walking the line, his mom's finally gone over the edge. Damn, Eugenia's right. Something needs done.
When Jeff rolls into town, he’s the only car on the road. He makes the ascent down the hill-of-a-street home. He passes Eugenia’s house with an F-you. His tire rim scrapes the curb as he pulls near the sidewalk. By then, it’s night. The headlights beam up the hill. The cats scurry across the lawn. As Jeff gets out of the car, he sees his mother in the soft glow of the porch light. She’s fussing with the stroller.
“Jeffie,” she calls out as she gets up.
Jeff hears the surprise in her voice, but Jeff walks around the car without saying hi.
“Mom, you gotta listen,” Jeff says as he charges up the steps.
His mother steps back and furrows her brow.
“Eugenia called,” Jeff says. “Something about you out all hours with a stroller.”
“Well, when did you and Eugenia become pen pals?” Jeff’s mom says. She folds her arms and wags her head from side-to-side.
“Hear me out. Answer me,” Jeff says.
She doesn’t answer.
“Mom. Mom. You can’t be doing that. People already think you’re nuts.”
“What about it? Like I care what people think,” she says.
Jeff steps past his mom. He peers inside the strollers. Thank God, there’s no roadkill. In fact, there’s nothing inside.
Jeff lets out a man-are-you-crazy laugh.
Jeff turns to his mom. She stands near the house door. She opens it and waves Jeff in with a let-me-prove-something grin.
She’s really soft with the door. She hunches low when it opens. She hushes Jeff, who thinks it’s been two years since he’s crossed that threshold. He braces himself for a good look at it. He stifles his breath when hit with the shut-up, cat piss smell of the house.
For the first time, Jeff sees it. Really, see it. The moon casts a light over piles of rubbish. It’s only cleared enough for the door to swing. From there, the floor is completely covered. The junk looks a foot deep in places. The abandoned items of everyday life lie like ruins, like every hope and dream Jeff figures his mom has ever had. In the corner, there’s a pile of clothes next to his mother’s reclining chair. On top of the clothes pile, the glow of three little sets of eyes strike Jeff.
He hears the crinkling sound of snack cake wrappers.
“Brownie’s not a he and Brownie has a brood,” Jeff’s mom says. Jeff can’t quite see his mom’s face, but he hears her exhale.
“I haven’t seen Brownie for three days. She’d never leave her little ones behind. I take them out in the stroller at night, thinking maybe, just maybe.”
Jeff’s mom steps through the room, like Moses parting the waters. She picks up one of the raccoons. She finds footing in the rubbish and lurches to hand it to Jeff. Jeff gasps at the sight of the little raccoon’s curious face. Its paws rest over his mom’s hands. Its feet dangle in the air below its plump belly. Jeff reaches out for the little critter. Its little paws wrap around Jeff’s finger. Jeff draws it into his chest. It's a tiny thing, like a squishy softball. It’s warm and soft against Jeff’s chest. Can’t be more than a few weeks old.
Then, Jeff’s mom hands him the other two. He struggles to keep them in his arms, but they grab onto his shirt. They yank his hair as they climb up him like he’s a jungle gym. He fumbles to keep control of them.
“Maybe she’s gone to find another place for them because we’re—,”Jeff stops himself. “You’re handling them.”
“For three days, Jeffie,” his mom says. “Think about it. She would have just moved them. No. Something’s up with Brownie.”
That night, Jeff and his mom—it’s her idea, take the little raccoons out in the stroller. Jeff tries to talk her out of it, at first, but what she says makes sense, possibly, at least.
“Maybe if she’s lost somewhere or trapped, she’ll track their scent,” Jeff’s mom says.
Jeff's sure there'll be talk tomorrow of the town crazy and her wackadoo son, but the two walk around town. Jeff’s mom pushes with the stroller. They rub little Debbie plastic wrappers together. They shake a box of snack cakes and yell, “Brownie! Here Brownie!” Let them all think what they want, Jeff decides. The years of hiding it, trying to manage it all— it lifts, at least for the time being. Who cares what others think?
The night is so vibrant. The navy sky is crisp with so many stars. The streets are quiet. Jeff feels like he and his mom and those little raccoons in the stroller, with the sound of its wheels rolling across the pavement, are the only, strange beings to cross a vast galaxy.
But a little way down the road, Jeff sees a jet cross the sky. Jeff’s first instinct is to point out everything ordinary about the jet. He’s nearly ready to explain why it isn’t a UFO, but he stops himself. In fact, Jeff sees something odd about the shape that makes it seem unusual.
Then as Jeff looks away from the sky, it comes towards them...the thrilling sight of two glowing eyes.