“Harry!” She screeched from the parlor. “Get in here goddamnit!”
In the shadows at the top of the stairs he waited, convinced she would pass out and he wouldn’t have to go down there; not again. Right after dinner, the moment he dried the last dish and scrubbed the counters as she had asked, he fled to his room and locked the door, hoping his Mother would think he’d gone down to the cove. Turning on the stereo, not too loud, he stared out the window; if Mother heard the music, she might start calling for him sooner than usual.
“Harry!!” He turned the music up a notch at that first sound and stared harder at the sea. “Harry!!” He lay down on his bed, closed his eyes, and covered his ears. “Harry!?! You little shit!”
That was it; her rasping voice, eroded by years of smoking and drinking, shouting, forced him from the room. His stomach quivering, he hid at the top of the stairs, listening. She was getting angry, and that would only make things worse. Drunk and weepy was painful to watch; drunk and angry hurt. Leaning over the banister as he crept downstairs, he could see the flickering gray and white lights of the television set spilling into the hallway from the back parlor. She was watching Three’s Company in the dark; and laughing; even cackling at the commercials. By this time each night, anything set her to laughing, but hers was not a fun laugh. It was a lonely sound, pleading to know why she was alone at the back of the house; it begged to understand why everyone in her life vanished. Her husband and slut of a daughter to God knows where, or who cares. Even her youngest, James, left the house as soon as dinner was over and Harry went to his room until she called for him.
”Mother?” He whispered from the stairs.
“Who’s that?” He heard her ask, scared.
“Me who?” She roared; the screeching started anew. “Me who?”
It was time, Harry realized, his head hurting, his eyes tearing. Inching down the hall into Mother’s parlor…said the spider to the fly…he found her sprawled across the sofa. The housecoat she constantly wore twisted around her body and one of her slippers lay under a table across the room; the other one dangled from her big toe. In the sputtering light of the television screen, he could see the tray set up with the dinner he made. Chicken and rice; arroz con pollo, his father called it all those years ago. She hadn’t touched it; the chicken was dry and the rice had hardened. Her glass, however, was full; the bottle beside it empty.
“I’ll help you, Mother.” Harry went to her.
“There’s my man.” Barbara sat upright and slipped her heavy arms around his neck. She kissed his cheek and Harry held his breath; she smelled so badly of cigarettes and alcohol, and the peppermints she sucked on because she foolishly believed they made her breath smell sweeter. “You’re my good man, Harry.”
Pulling Barbara to her feet, Harry helped her find, and slip on, the lost slipper; he turned the television off and then walked her down the darkened hallway to the stairs. It was like holding an animal inside a sack, he thought, as he struggled to keep her on her feet and headed in the right direction. Holding her arm around his neck, he squeezed her tight around the waist.
At the bottom of the stairs, she seized the wall for support and he latched onto the railing, taking it step-by-step so Barbara could rest if she felt dizzy. Listening to the surf behind the house, and wishing he was out there with the sea and the birds, alone, not lonely, Harry pushed his mother forward. Her sweaty hands left elongated steaks in the white and red-flocked wallpaper; stripes of oil that ran from the bottom step to the top. Finally, after what felt like a lifetime later, his mother loose in his arms, they reached Barbara’s door. Harry helped her onto the bed, then backed toward the door, “Night Mother.”
“Haaarry,” she moaned. “Please…. Put me to bed.”
Every night he prayed it would be different; every night he would stay in his room longer and longer, hoping she would pass out and not call for him. But she never did, and he always came down to her, and guided her upstairs, hoping against hope she would sleep in her housecoat; the only thing she wore unless Grandmother was visiting. Night after night, Harry undressed her, cleaned her up, and put her to bed.
Eyes on the ceiling, he slipped off the flannel dressing gown, turning his head when she stood before him in her bra and panties. He maneuvered her into the bathroom and ran water in the sink; with one hand, he helped her stand while he washed her with the other. It was all Harry could do not to gag, washing her skin, so flabby, and cool, like raw chicken. The water running between her breasts and splashing onto her belly, she sat on the edge of the tub; her eyes were glazed over by this time, and rolling around loose in their sockets. Harry always thought he could leave her there, but in the morning she would…. So, he dried her off and helped her from the small room and into bed. Her fingers, cold from the water, stroked his face, and she begged him to stay for a while, just until she fell asleep.
“Only a few minutes, Harry. Be a good boy.” Her voice was tearful and angry all at the same time. “Damn you Harry, do this for me.”
Grabbing hold of his hands, Barbara pulled her son onto the bed beside her. Harry sat there like a lap dog, longing to be outside, away from his mother and this room, but she wouldn’t let go of his hands, and tugged him closer. She made him lie down next to her, holding his fingers between her breasts. She wrapped one leg around his waist and clenched tightly. Harry, softly so he wouldn’t bother her, began to cry, staying silent until she was asleep, and only then would he crawl to his room.
He was twelve-years-old. He was a good boy.