Turner joked to some that his mother was one of those people incapable of dying, and so (not as a joke) for her eightieth birthday he had it in mind to put her into a retirement home—a place where there was nothing to do, ultimately, other than die. Not that he would relocate her immediately. He would wait a few weeks to devise a plan for packaging the move as good intentions, as a gift to someone other than himself.
Since he had no siblings, Turner’s mother’s welfare was his responsibility, but as far as he was concerned time makes strangers of everyone, and in the category of gifts received—and Turner viewed it as a gift—he already had power of attorney. He was also executor of the estate, which was considerable but by no means inexhaustible.
“We’ve discussed this,” he said. “Remember when you turned seventy-nine? We talked about when you hit the big eight-o, that it might be time to quit driving. Why not move, too?”
Turner got up and walked behind his mother to the kitchen. “Let’s find a place where you can stay independent. Like we talked about.”
“Remember, once, when you visited for Christmas?”
“That was a while ago, and I’m sure we didn’t talk about it.” Her speech was frail and even sweet until she had to cough up a syllable that had gotten caught in her throat.
Turner poured two bourbons, and when he presented his mother with hers, he genuflected like a suppliant or one about to propose marriage.
“That’s strong,” she said. “How’s Jessica?”
“She’s fine,” he said. “Sends her love. She’d have come down, but she has work. If you moved, you’d be closer to both of us. There’s another reason to live in the city.”
“You know how I hate the city.”
“To a home outside the city then.”
“A home?” She said quizzically, as one might pronounce an unknown word. “This is my home.”
“I know how much you adore Jess and how much she loves you. You’d be closer. Have you thought about that? It’s one of the things we talked about.”
“I’m sure we didn’t,” she said.
At moments like this, his mother retreated to their mutual affection for Jessica. She seemed content to say, as she often would, “Marrying Jessica was the smartest thing you ever did.”
“Ready for another drink?” Turner asked.
“Not quite, sweetheart.”
“Well, at least think about it.”
“Maybe when I’m done with this one,” she said, reaching for the remote.
“I mean about moving.” But Turner’s mother had already redirected her attention to the Weather Channel. “Think about it,” he said again. “About moving closer to Jess and me.”
“I will,” she said distantly, scanning the room for her cat, Mr. Chips.
It was far from the surrender Turner had hoped for, but would have to do until he could visit again. She’d better come around soon, he thought on the drive back to Atlanta, remembering with a renewed sense of loss that the deposit he had made to Sherman’s Manor Retirement Community was only fifty percent refundable.
They’d tried the city once, five years ago, the Christmas after Turner’s father had died. Turner thought that if they took the train up it might wean his mother from the idea that driving a car was so necessary, but in the space of three hours, the locomotive encountered two switching delays, freight traffic, and then hit a vehicle, finally arriving downtown after dark. By the time they got to the hotel, they had lost their reservation and had to settle for a smaller room. They also missed the appointment Turner had made with an agent who was to have shown his mother a condo in the Presidential Towers building.
Turner had decided then, while her grief was fresh, to distract his mother with the delights of city life: food, stores, sights, and all of the things he and Jess loved.
“Shopping?” Turner suggested.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Anywhere you like.”
“Is there a place that sells mysteries?” she asked.
“There’s a bookstore in the 700 block.”
“Do they have mysteries?”
“Of course,” he said, putting his coat back on.
“Is it far? It’s so cold out.”
“Not too far, and it’s no colder than when we came in.”
The avenue was like a neon garden with lights in full bloom and a dry, chalk-white snow drifting brightly down from the blackness above.
“Everything’s so beautiful,” she said.
“What’s that?” Turner wanted her to repeat it—the part about how beautiful everything was.
“Beautiful . . . all the lights, and decorations, and buildings, but is it always this cold? My circulation’s not good.”
Turner’s mother, who was tall, moved in overly deliberate half-strides. If she had enjoyed any part of trudging through five city blocks of holiday crowds, it was not apparent from her expression, which was the marriage of physical pain to the dread that each step was the antecedent to a fall.
Inside the Hanover Building, things went from bad to worse.
“I think I’ll go to J. Crew,” Turner said, pausing in the atrium as currents of shoppers flowed past. When a Williams Sonoma caught his mother’s eye, she indicated that she would be “over here,” and blindly swung the back of her hand into another woman’s nose.
“Mom! There are a half-million people in this city. You’ve got to watch what you’re doing!”
The woman who had been struck hurried on, clutching her face.
“Well, she should watch where she’s going,” his mother said.
When they got to the bookstore, his mother realized that she had forgotten her glasses at the hotel—or worse had left them on the train—so Turner spent forty-five minutes reading plot summaries aloud. Then, on the way down the escalator, she took a misstep and tumbled forward, shrieking as she cut her leg above the ankle.
“Christ!” he cried out.
“Are you alright?” asked the gentleman behind them.
“We’re fine, thank you,” Turner said. “This is a nightmare.”
“What?” she said.
“Nothing. We’ll stop at Walgreen’s to get bandages on the way back.” Blood ran even with the seam of torn leggings and into her therapeutic shoe.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hobbling on. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”
At the Ambassador Room, Turner brooded through dinner, less willing than able to eat.
Unprompted, his mother would never say a word in complaint, which made the situation all the more frustrating. Her silence was a reminder that, after all that had gone wrong, Turner couldn’t possibly broach the subject of her moving to the city.
“Will Jessica be joining us?” she asked finally.
“What’s that?” Turner’s attention wandered. “Oh, no. Tomorrow night.”
The old have a way of dragging the rest of the world down with them, he thought. If there was a silver lining to the day, it was this: she had proved that she was an accident looking for a place to happen. What if these things were to occur at home, when her housecleaner, Leticia, wasn’t around, and there was no one else to help? The only thing less in dispute was how thoroughly circumstances had undermined his efforts to make urban life seem desirable.
Turner’s mother seemed to sense what was wrong, and she insisted that, rather than take a cab, she was fine to walk the three blocks back to the hotel. The snow had stopped, but the streets remained slick and black.
“Can we rest here, honey, for a minute?” His mother trundled over to an iron bench next to a stone fountain, which had been drained for the season and stood caked in snow like a shrine to winter.
“Are you alright?”
“It’s my leg,” she said, wincing. She sat, reaching to feel her injury with such a show of effort that Turner wondered if somehow she wanted him to do it for her.
Her fingers, tacky with fresh blood, came up into the yellow light. “Damn it,” she said.
“I’ve bled through my bandages. Do you think we could get a cab after all?”
“Of course,” Turner sighed.
“I’m sorry. I’m ruining everything.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, ready to fault himself for not having seen this coming.
“I’m sure any cab driver will be happy to drive us one block back to the hotel.”
Turner kept no secrets from his wife, except for the particular ones he did not want her to know: a part-time girlfriend and some hidden debt. He made no pretense, however, when it came to frustrations over his mother, and since Jess was a check on Turner’s intolerance, in this way she was an ally.
“She won’t have it,” he said when he returned to Atlanta from his latest visit. “She won’t even move to be closer to you, and that’s the best card I had to play.”
“So what’s the big deal?” Jess said, drying the last of the plates. “That you have to keep calling her once a week and visiting now and then?”
“No, the big deal is when she runs over someone with that Deville and gets us sued, or exhausts the trust on home shopping, or gets scammed—”
“That’s sort of what I mean by scammed,” Turner said.
“She lives for QVC, that’s for sure, and that cat.”
“I don’t know what she lives for. At least she’s given up on grandchildren.”
Turner instantly regretted saying this.
“What I mean is—” But he could see from Jess’s face that the damage was done.
“Right,” she shot back, launching a towel at him, “If she were waiting for that, I guess you’d be stuck with her forever.”
After the fiasco in the city, Turner’s mother had been in no hurry to return, and his and Jessica’s annual summer trip to spend a week with her became all the more important—the fifty one weeks in between representing a chasm of space that would be, it seemed to Turner, impossible for his mother to fill.
From what he and Jess gathered from phone calls, his mother’s life consisted of a weekly cycle of sameness, anchored by Leticia coming to clean on Monday, a visit to the beauty parlor on Wednesday, and grocery shopping on Friday. She had long ago quit her altar guild duties and the church entirely in favor of televangelism and Face the Nation. He guessed that she liked the host, Bob Schieffer, because he was old, and imagined that the elderly must trust their own kind most.
On their most recent visit, Jess found a series of lists in a notebook on a table next to his mother’s recliner. “What do you make of this?” she asked Turner.
In the small worn spiral, they read through catalogs of tasks meticulously spelled out and crossed through:
feed Mr. Chips
“Do you think she forgets things?” Jess asked.
“No,” Turner said, feeling that he knew his mother well enough to be certain of this. “I think she looks forward to them.”
“When we’re at dinner, watch your drinking,” Jess said later. Though Jessica didn’t drink at all, she rarely tried to curb her husband. “It’s not a contest. No need to keep up.”
“What’s it to you?” Turner said, already on his second bourbon. “Besides, we leave tomorrow.”
“You say things you shouldn’t when you’ve been drinking. You’ve been doing it all week.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. She tells me, and I’m tired of her asking me if I think you love her.”
“She asks you that?”
“Neither of us likes doing this, Turner, but she’s your mother, and seeing you is the only thing she has to get excited about. It’s her one joy. Can you please try not to poison it?”
“I’d like to poison that cat.”
“It’s as if you want to take away whatever pleasure she has left. Face it. Whether you like it or not, she loves you to death.”
“Really?” Turner was astonished to hear this. “You keep me grounded,” he said, kissing Jess on the cheek. “Do you know that?”
“Let’s go,” she said.
But Turner had already collapsed face-first onto the bed.
“What’s the rush?” he spoke into the pillow. “She won’t be ready for another twenty minutes. You know she’d make this last forever if she could.”
When they returned from dinner, Jessica went to bed. Turner and his mother were both drunk, and Jess, who seemed to be in no mood for any of it, excused herself on the grounds that she would be driving first thing in the morning. In the meantime, Turner poured nightcaps while his mother changed into a robe and looked for Mr. Chips.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon.”
“Me too,” he said, putting a drink into her hand.
“Is everything alright?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she eased into her recliner, “it’s just you’ve seemed upset all week, and you’ve been rather short. Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Turner said, and knocked back half the glass.
“You know,” she said, “it’s a bitch getting old.” Turner knew that she meant to be audacious, and yet all he could think was how comic dotage is when it tests profanity.
“Yep,” Turner said, finishing the drink as he stood to get another.
“So, you’re sure you’re alright? There’s nothing you want to talk about?”
“Well, there is one thing,” he said.
“It’s not something Jess knows about. I don’t want her to know.”
“You know I won’t say anything,” she vowed.
“I’m having an affair.”
“For about a year,” Turner said. “She just moved, and I’m having a hard time.”
“How did you meet?”
“That’s not important. She’s younger than me,” he added, as if that was.
“How much younger?”
“She’s twenty-two. She was attending community college, but transferred to a school in Savannah.” Turner waited for his mother’s expression to change—for the glower of condemnation that did not come. “I’m in love with her.”
“Turner! Do you still see her?”
“She calls.” He downed the glass. “We see each other when she’s in Atlanta.”
“And Jessica has no idea?”
Only then did resentment strain his mother’s face. Only then did it register, the anger and the hurt that Turner had been coaxing. “I wish that girl would leave you alone! Doesn’t she know you’re married?”
“No . . . God, no. I’d never tell her that.” Turner sighed. “Anyway,” he said, “there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve made my bed, as they say. Speaking of bed, I should turn in. It’s getting late.”
Turner kissed his mother on the forehead, as one would venerate a sacred object, and he went away feeling satisfied that she had gotten what she deserved even if she was too stunned by the immediacy of the news to know it. He had spat on her trust in him and all she held dear, including Jess. It would be impossible for her to love him now, impossible for her to believe him of love, and—as if that was not enough—he had saddled her with the burden of his most damning secret.
It did not immediately occur to Turner that his mother, who didn’t sleep much anyway, might have stayed up, stroking Mr. Chips and coming to terms with these realities, that she might be lightened by the revelation of her son’s daring: a depth of worldly success and masculine sophistication of which, perhaps, she would not have thought him capable, and that for the first time in years she could feel young herself, like she was some kind of lover.
On future phone calls, Turner’s mother rarely missed an opportunity to ask about the matter he least wanted to discuss—his secret girlfriend—who had entered her son’s life to complicate it in new and exciting ways. Her mind even seemed to sharpen as she became a steward of great responsibility not to let a word slip in front of Jess, but most of all, Turner imagined that she treasured the trust he had placed in her. How much she must think I love her, he thought over and over until, before long, he guessed that it had become enough, and more than enough, to live for.
Lyle Roebuck is a native of Saint Simons Island, GA. His fiction has appeared in the Arkansas Review, the Roanoke Review, Straylight Magazine, Redivider, A Torn Page: 2012 Summer Short Fiction Anthology, and Split Lip Magazine. “They’re All Gentlemen in the Dark,” a book-length collection of stories, was shortlisted for the 2014 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award.