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Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop


  Mrs. Mellors
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

About the Author  


Mother said, “I'm not going to physical therapy, that's where they try to poison you, that's why you want me to go.” Then she shut her mouth and narrowed her eyes and looked at me until I looked away.

Mother wouldn't have had to go to physical therapy if she hadn't had the seizure, then the heart attack, then gone to the hospital, then slipped off the toilet while she was peeing, slipped in her own pee, fallen sideways, then broke her hip. “I was there on that cold floor all morning, I couldn't move, and no one came, they just left me there, in all, um, that.” Mother would never say the word pee, whatever else.

I said, “Mom, it isn't about physical therapy any more. You go, you don't go, it's your choice.” I was, for a moment, looking straight back at her, even though I wanted to look away, out the window, down in front of the hospital, through the rain, at the blonde in the black leather outfit just getting out of a slate grey BMW.

“We've got to find a place is all,” I said, ambiguous but firm. Firm as the fender of a BMW. Ambiguous as fog.

Mother shut down, set her mouth, set her eyes. She knew I'd look away. So I did. What she didn't know, had never known, was I liked looking away, could, for instance, look outside at a taxicab or a BMW while I waited for the glaze to set, for the varnish to seep over my arms and legs and hands and head, helping me, inch by inch, become a coffee table.

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I didn't always want to be a piece of furniture. I started out like most, thinking I'd be better off as someone else, a fireman, or an indian chief.

“Why a lawyer? What's a lawyer? We don't know any lawyers.”

“I don't know, Mother. I took the Law School Aptitude Test. It was fun. I guess I thought law would be fun.”

“Is it?” We were at dinner, sometime after Viet Nam. I remember it was after Rita but while I had the blue Chrysler.

“It's okay,” I said. Mother chewed and gave me a sharp look.

“All right,” I said, “it sucks, okay?”

“Don't swear,” said Mother.

We'd been there before. It wasn't, believe me, worth it to tell her that sucks wasn't swearing. Anyway, in five more minutes she would pour the coffee, and five minutes later I would be gone.

“Do you want cream in your coffee?” she said from the kitchen.

I'd been there, before, too. She'd watched me drink black coffee from the time I was twelve when my father poured my first cup.

“I hope you don't want cream.”

I watched the words curl out of the kitchen and circle the crystal chandelier before falling into the folds of the drapes.

“I don't have any. You could go next door and get milk from Lillian if you really needed some.” Lillian was four feet tall; she had known me since we moved in when I was eight years old; she called me Freddy.

“She's Jewish,” my mother announced from the kitchen; for my mother religion was the most important adjective. “But she buys milk. I think she only has two percent though. Will that be all right?”

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I was five years old the first time I killed my mother. It was after a dinner where I had let her win. She had told me to eat my peas or else, and I had said I didn't like peas and wasn't going to eat them and she said Yes you are too. And I didn't in the dining room, just sat there with everything getting stony cold, even my chicken.

My father got bored and said, “You two can stay here 'til next Tuesday, if you want to.”

Then he said to my mother, “This is a good night, Trudy. I got Elsie and Fredo going on at ten thirty at Mocambo.”

My mother said, “This is more important than one of your dance teams. Someone in this family's got to keep their priorities straight.”

“Peas it is,” said my father. I remember he looked over at me behind her back, gave me a wink and a grin that said “Better you than me, kiddo.” Well, someone had to stay where things were important.

After he left, Mother said, “I can't keep you in this dining room. I've got to get this mess cleaned up.”

I followed her into the living room, then kneeled, like always, in front of the coffee table while she put the plate of peas and chicken in front of me.

“You eat up these peas now, every one,” she said.

I was going to eat my peas; I just wanted to give my father a chance to get away. My mother was standing by the open window, looking down on West End Avenue from the 18th floor. I remember knowing she was waiting to watch my father hail a cab, waiting to see whether, like the times I was with him, someone with blonde hair and perfume would open the door from the inside dark of the cab and invite him in. I wanted to scream down to him, Go around the corner where she can't see you.

I thought she heard me, because that was when she turned from the window and said, “I think you must be adopted. If you really were my child, you'd eat those peas.” Then she turned back to the window and lit a cigarette. “Come to think of it,” she said through the smoke, shaking out the match, “you probably are my child after all.”

That was when I felt in my hands what it would be like to push against her, shove my hands against her dress, against her nylon stockings through her dress, a simple push, I would watch her fall, her mouth open but quiet.

Instead, I didn't look at her. I just ate my peas, each and every one, without once looking up from my plate, one at a time, picking each one up between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, making my mouth a special pucker so I could stick each pea right inside, then sucking it into my mouth before I chewed it, just one, before I swallowed it, before I took another. I didn't look at her at all, while I ate, while I had my bath, even while she was tucking me in bed, I didn't look because I didn't have to because, you know, she wasn't there. She was dead.

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I got back from ‘Nam and got into law and Rita at the same time. Rita liked to bite my ear and chew my nipples and lick my balls and wear gold and platinum and diamonds at the same time. I never understood how I could love and hate someone so much at the same time. I wanted kids, but then I think of Rita, and I'm glad. Ten years is a long time, though.

It was as easy getting started with the law as with Rita. It was the beginning of the eighties; all the big firms wanted lawyer vet bodies to throw at the clients, bill those suckers til they screamed, every billable minute and marked up photocopy dripping down to the bottom line. I got so I could hear the seconds trickle through my pen, listen as they hit my accounts like large, moist drops in a too-green forest.

After work, after Rita, ten o'clock, I always went alone to the bars. By then the couples eating dinner had left, and the singles who were going to get paired up had already attached themselves to each other and left, so whoever was sitting down the end of the bar—usually not so good looking, but after Rita I didn't really want good looking—whoever she was, she was probably in a mood for at least a good lay; she didn't care. Thursday night, she figured, probably good for the weekend.

After I'd had to kill a couple, I finally learned to stay away from the ones with long straight hair who were into politics. I didn't need Jocelyn or Amy looking up at me from pastel linen sheets, wondering, with the fake innocence on top of her eyes not quite covering the scorn underneath, how someone so nice could be a lawyer. So I killed them by looking away. They knew they were dead, because Jocelyn or Sarah or Amy or Beth would stop talking and just watch me get dressed.

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I didn't want to see my mother's note. The detective told me she'd left it in the bedroom, but I knew someone had moved it. I knew exactly what it said, exactly where she left it: Eat your peas. Stand up straight. Be a man. You think I'm going to wait around for you to leave me like your father did? In the center of the coffee table, underneath a dinner plate.

“Without the note,” he said, “coulda been an accident. Old lady like that, over by the window, falls out. Happens all the time. But there was this here note in the bedroom.”

I looked down at her stationery, “Trudy” in printed blue script across the top, and her handwriting, sharp, spiky strokes, “I can't stand the pain.” And I thought, Mother, I know exactly what you mean.

It was a good thing I'd killed her all those times before, a good thing I'd killed them all, knew how to be alone without any one, any thing, knew how now to be a chair, sitting, stony gray, awake and asleep, there and not, not sad or happy, holding firm, holding on. Waiting.

  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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