Mother Load

By Nancy Baker

Railroad Tracks

It was after the washing of the dinner pots and dishes, the reading of today’s paper, the tucking in bed of the younger ones. It was after I heard him say as he walked out the back door, “I’ll see you later,” and I responded, “Good luck at the game.”

Afterward, I curled myself in the comfort of the club chair in front of the TV, looking forward to a few hours of stationary aloneness. It was my choice that night, not hockey or football, but the History Channel, an HBO movie, or a repeat showing perhaps of the Memorial Day special, “Swan Lake” on Channel Thirteen. For the next three hours, I would allow myself to be entertained. So even when the front doorbell rang, I remained contained.

For the next three hours, I would allow myself to relax without guilt; I would not answer the telephone; I would allow the answering machine to kick in; I would not attempt to pair orphaned socks from the dryer or pay household bills. I would accomplish nothing. And I would try to ignore the person or persons on the front porch who were so persistently and annoyingly ringing the front doorbell again and again. Really, I thought this was rude.

All right. Enough. More than likely, I thought, it was an advocate seeking signatures in support of a grassroots petition, or a couple of high school students seeking a pledge on behalf of the glee club or the band for their summer European tour, the door-to-door campaign that often happened this time of year. Only during the three-minute commercial could I justify, just enough time to cover all matters of endorsement; then I would return to the solitary comfort of my club chair.

Without foresight, neglecting to glance out through the sidelights that framed the front door, I opened the door.

He was a man of large stature, at least six-feet tall and solid, with shoulders like a linebacker of a professional football team. His curly brown hair and piercing blue eyes stared pensively down at me like the stone sculpture of a Roman face. He wore a navy blue suit and a starched white shirt. He introduced himself, but distracted I immediately failed to remember his name. He reached into his breast pocket and brought out a black leather case that he held out so I could see clearly the brass badge that was encased.

“May I help you?” I said. Then impulsively and confidently, I asked, “Would you like to come in, Detective?” I made a wide passage with a push of the screen door.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

I felt the bulk of his presence as he followed me into the small television room. I gestured with my remote control to the other club chair. “Please sit down,” I said as I clicked off the chatter from the television and sat down across from him.

He sat forward in the chair, silent with his head bowed. His enormous legs spread outward like the wingspan of an eagle. He reached into the side pocket of his jacket with one hand, while simultaneously clicking the top of a ballpoint pen, and with the other hand brought out a small black notebook and flipped open the cover. Preparation, I supposed, to record the information that I, as a mother, may presume to know.

“We’ve had some problems with a certain person. This person named your son. You understand that we are required to follow up on this. I need to ask some questions,” he said.

“Who is this person who named my son? What is his name?” I asked.

“I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I can’t divulge that person’s name, only that your son’s name was mentioned.”

I did not respond. I sat still, fearful, wary.

“I need to know if your son has a blue blanket.”

“What? A blue blanket?”

“Yes, a blue blanket.”

What do I try to tell the detective that I do not know?

“Well, my youngest child sleeps with a blue blanket, but he’s asleep. Although, I’m sure we have other blue blankets. At least I think we do. On the other hand, I can’t be absolutely sure that we really do. Perhaps we have a sleeping bag that’s blue. But can’t you tell me what this is about?”

He answered my question with his own. “Would you mind if I looked in your son’s room?”

“His room?”

“Yes, his room.”

I hesitated. The detective would have to climb the four flights of the center hall stairs, past our family inner sanctum to my son’s bedroom. His desk, bureau, and shelves, probably in need of dusting, were stacked in disarray with assorted notebooks, trophies, tapes, and piles of CDs. Was his bed made or unmade? Were his towels on the towel bar ? Or damp in a heavy heap on the floor, as my broken heart was now. And should I care how the detective perceived the three-by-four-foot posters of two notable female movie stars? They were flanking the closet door like architectural ornaments, or goddesses—a pair of Athenas.

“No, Detective, I’m sure that won’t be necessary. I’ll call my son. He should answer your questions. He’s having dinner with his girlfriend tonight. Excuse me,” I said.

I went into the kitchen and tore through the pages of the high-school directory to find the telephone number of my son’s girlfriend. When found, I must have whispered the directive to him two or three times before he understood. “Come home now. There’s a detective here asking questions, and he’s not telling me what this is about. Now!”

The teenage voice did not question, nor did either of us engage in inconsequential dialogue or the normal discourse of back-and-forth debate. We both felt the rush of fear in the moment.

Afterward, I filled the black kettle with tap water and turned the stove knob to light the flame. I called out to the detective in the adjoining room, telling him my son was on his way. “Would you like some coffee? I’m making a pot,” I said.

He lumbered into the kitchen. I braced my spine against the counter of the sink.

“You know, Detective, I want to tell you we’ve had a hellish week. Monday we were told that my son’s classmate had killed himself. It was just the day before. We’re still numb from the shock of this tragedy. The memorial for this young man was at school today. Maybe you heard about the party in Yardley last weekend?”

The detective’s face was pensive; no emotion was conveyed.

“Yes, I think I heard about that kid,” he said.

At that point, I had to contain my desire to shout. He was not just a kid, I wanted to say. He was a son and a brother and a friend.

“They said he was a good guy and kind and talented. He would graduate from high school in three weeks. Did you hear what happened?” I asked.

The detective did not respond.

“Apparently, the parents were away. It was presumed that because of all the cars, the music, and the noise, one of the neighbors called the police. When the police came they questioned all the boys one by one and threatened them unless they told them which one of the boys brought the keg of beer. This young man came forward. He took the blame to end it all—the scene. And the police made an example of him. Witnesses said the police were rough. They pulled this boy down and handcuffed him; they threw him in the back of their van. He didn’t call his parents when he was allowed to. He spent the night in jail. Later, it was said that he killed himself because he felt he had failed his parents again. A while ago, he smashed his father’s car and was arrested for a DUI. The next morning, his older brother retrieved him out of jail. Then he told his brother he was going for a walk. He did go for a walk but then jumped from the turnpike overpass onto railroad tracks below.”

The detective remained thoughtful and paused before slowly and pointedly responding.

“How do you want me to proceed with your son, ma’am? I can treat this matter any number of ways. I can come down hard or I can scare him.”

Category: Featured, Short Story