"Mother's Waiting" by Chad Patton

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Mother's Waiting
He sits alone in the dark, lights off and lost in his own swamp
of failed understanding. The kids are asleep, two of them, a boy and girl.
He watches Late Night TV while they sleep, his wife dozing in bed, falling
asleep with the lamp still on, the TV in her room playing at a low rumble.
It’s the middle of the week and she has work in the morning, had it all day
too. She’s forced to wake to his snores throughout the night until it’s
thirty minutes before the alarm sounds and she’s tired of trying to make
herself go to sleep. She looks at him and wonders what it’s like inside his
head, if he sleeps because he’s tired or just because it’s what humanity is
meant to do. She wonders if he still sleeps in the same bed because the
sofa isn’t comfortable, or he doesn’t want to buy a new one. He’s not
hiding it: he stays up to stay away. He doesn’t want that goodnight kiss
before he goes to bed. He’s afraid of what might happen if she sees him
naked; he dresses in the dark lately, but she’s never going to look. She’s
too embarrassed to look, too embarrassed to see what he’s packing. Like it
has changed in some way. It used to be a pretty little plantain dangling
over two chestnuts. Now it’s a fungus shriveled in a vast woods, guarded by
some evil headhunters. Or better, they are cannibals. Parasites even. They
enter, attack, suck the life out and walk away without any remorse. They
leave you with two little worms lying in bed while their daddy watches Late
Night. The two little worms hold their plush toys, they smile while they’re
asleep in the darkness, stationed next to the furnace to keep them warm
during the cold. Next to the windows to keep them cool during the warm.

Most nights when he comes to bed his weight shifts her to the
left and she squints her eyes closed to feign sleep. He doesn’t say a word
although he knows she’s awake. They could’ve bought one of those new
mattresses from the bed and bath store that just opened down the way, but
he’s probably spending the money on his mistress. At least that’s what she
thinks: that he has a mistress. Sometimes she hopes that she makes him
happier than she made him, that he kisses his mistress on the lips like he
used to kiss her–his wife - back in Lubic when they moved there for a
better job. Maybe he buys her flowers or takes her on fancy trips when
really he’s supposed to be away on business. His mistress is loyal too. But
she’s not. She’s not like his mistress, never did exactly what her man
asked. Sometimes she’d even do things despite what he asked. They weren’t
big things, but little mess-ups here and there so she would never be caught
in the cycle of having a man always telling her what to do. He wants her to
vacuum, so she does, but she misses a couple spots here and there. Behind
the couches she leaves a bit of lint, in the middle of the living room is a
quarter-square-inch cube of carpet left lighter than the rest that’s been
sucked and trampled by the hose and the wheels.

He’ll ask her to walk the dog, but instead she’ll run with the
dog, sometimes jog, sometimes walk, but never walk the whole time. They’re
the little things that keep her sane and have kept her sane throughout
their fifteen years. Now she’s forced to wait.

He continues watching. It’s later so the not-as-funny Late
Night is playing. The TV flickers on his face, illuminates the brown walls
of the downstairs: all of them faded shades of light reflecting in his
bifocals. His mouth hangs open while the talk-show host interviews some
wannabe about a life that nobody really cares about. His fingers twitch
while he starts to fall asleep. He wants to go to bed, but he won’t. He
thinks about that and realizes that the couch isn’t anything better, but he
still has more waiting to do, more avoiding: a façade to build in the long
hours of the night while his children are quietly sleeping. It was a while
ago when his son yelled to him at the foot of the stairs wanting him to
come upstairs, kiss his forehead and tell him goodnight. “I’ll be right
there,” he told him. It’s the ritual that follows every night. His son
doesn’t stay up late enough to call his bluff. Dad is the Santa Claus of
the nuclear family: the children are supposed to go to bed, close their
eyes tightly, and when they wake up their father reads the paper, mom makes
the eggs and the lunches for school until everyone leaves the mom for
school and work - a life - while she kisses all of them goodbye between
applying her make-up on the couch. But he is reserved. His kiss to her is
shallow like he’s slurping air from an invisible spoon. She pretends not to
notice, the kids are already running toward the bus to do their math and
write their poems and draw their pictures of their mommy and daddy so they
can be displayed on the refrigerator. Sometimes, before he comes up to go
to sleep, the dad will see that picture in the sober light of the stove;
the simple stick figures barely illuminated, almost discernable but still
without defined lines; mom’s brown hair running into dad’s neck while the
brown of his shirt spans a shadow across his daughter’s face and the son’s
hand blocks sissy’s eyes. Everything connected, everything intertwined.

Tonight dad doesn’t notice that picture. Instead he hears
creaks from the floorboards upstairs. His mouth shuts as the creaks come
closer. He hears the floorboards echo through the living room, past the
foyer and through the kitchen. The steps stand at the foot of the stairs,
like they did before, still as the audience on TV. “Hello?”

The voice is angelic, sweet, innocent and uncertain. In some
way that voice questions every unfortunate thing to cross this troubled
Earth. It waits for an answer, but is unreceiving of one. Instead it hangs
suspended, empty and scared. The voice rings again with the same word –
hello–and this time it’s frightened of its own uncertainty.

“What are you doing up?”

The voice doesn’t respond. Instead its tiny feet saunter down
the stairs like heavy weights are tied to its ankles. Slowly the rest of
its body is revealed. From its ankles come its skinny legs. From its skinny
legs: its petite waist; from its petite waist: its delicate frame and from
its delicate frame emerges the rotund face of a crying boy. His tears
descend in shifts. They aren’t quick to reach the finish, but are
deliberately timed as to not start before the other stops. His eyes are
glossy from crying, the surrounding skin reddened and his little nose
pinched in the middle and flared toward the end.

“Hey. I asked you what you’re doing up,” dad says with
heartfelt inquisition.

The boy gives a hearty sob. “I was looking for you, dad.”

Dad pats his hand on the couch. The boy wipes his eyes and
walks to the indicated spot. He stares at the floor while he walks, afraid
to look at his father’s face in the constrained lighting of the TV. The boy
looks at the couch now as he gets closer to it, and while he stumbles to
turn and sit, a shroud of laughter emerges from the TV while a man in a
suit stands on stage with one hand in his pocket and the other lingering in
the air as if her were carrying a dish at a fancy party.

Dad keeps his eyes fixed on the boy the whole time, but the boy
only looks at the table, at the centerpiece: three white candles on a black
pedestal. The boy remembers when his mother bought it to replace its
predecessor: the plastic fruit that he’d fed to the family’s late dog.

His gaze stays consistent with the centerpiece while his father
continues watching him. As the time moves by his embarrassment grows and
his longing for his father to speak abounds equally.

“Where did you think I went?” Dad says after a while.

The boy shrugs his shoulders, his eyes fixed on the
centerpiece. Dad falls back on the couch and throws his arm around his son,
gives a gentle pat on the back and kisses him on the head before tousling
his hair. The boy looks up at his father for the first time since dinner
and he sees the restraint of the man’s emotions. For the boy’s father, love
is a hug, a kiss, a touch or a word, but that’s all. Love is supposed to
come from the eyes, and when the boy looks into his father’s eyes he never
sees that–or never feels it, at least, because the boy’s yet to
understand the vision of that look. It’s not that his father has never
loved. Instead he has an inverted blindness–an inability to project the
inner state of being. The boy doesn’t know that it’s not his father’s
fault, that it’s not his father’s ailment. His blindness isn’t his, it’s
the world’s. It’s his own, it’s his mom’s, it’s his sister’s, it’s his
father’s friends-from-work’s and his father’s secretary’s; his
grandmother’s and grandfather’s and aunt’s and uncle’s. It’s anyone’s who
has ever known, met or somehow passed his father in his short lifetime. For
his father, the blindness came from people never understanding him, not the
other way around. It’s this blindness and misunderstanding and unbearable
construction of the messiness that is the word “love” that caused the boy
to look away from his father once more.

“Come on, kiddo. What’s wrong?”

The boy doesn’t speak until the words are pulled out of his
mouth. He asks, “do you still love me?”

His father stirs in his seat, tries to hide the shock on his
face. He has never been forced to think about that before. He knows the
answer, but being asked makes him unsure. He begins to wonder whether his
son’s question is a valid one, whether or not he has shown any signs of
hatred, dislike, annoyance, dissatisfaction or disapproval for the boy.
Thinking back on it, he finds no reason for the boy to ask such a question,
yet, for the matter to be brought forth is a sign of causation. Obviously
the father did something to the boy to make him ask such a thing. Quite
possibly it was when he told the boy he couldn’t play video games until he
washed the dishes, or maybe the boy was afraid when his father slammed the
door of his office because he was on a conference call and the boy was
playing with his toys too loudly; maybe it was when he didn’t give the boy
a shoulder ride when he asked for one, or when he didn’t twirl him around
by the arms that one time at the fourth of July party when he was busy
drinking with his brother-in-law talking about the Lions and how they could
use better management. Indeed he believed all these things trivial at the
time, but little things always seem so big in the head of a child.

“Why would you think that?” Dad grabs the boy once more while
the boy looks down at the floor. “Of course I love you.”

Gentle sobs strain from under dad’s armpits. He feels a small
spot of his sleeve begin to stick to his skin. He holds the boy and
whispers incoherencies that seem to calm the boy. Words that the two of
them created a while ago that they promised would make each other laugh –
even when they cried. Words that would always remain a secret between
father and son. He loosens his grip on the boy, grabs his chin and lifts
his head as to look him in the eyes. In that moment he sees so much of the
boy’s mother in his mussed hair, his tiny nose and tiny ears. He remembers
seeing those ears in college, such small ears were so obvious to him that
it defeated the purpose of them being small. And that big mouth with those
big lips. What it would be like to go back and see her at that age again.


He hears his name and shakes off the idea as if he was
disgusted with himself for thinking that way after looking at his son.

“Sorry, bud.” He looks down at the remote, “is there anything
you want to watch?”

The boy looks at his feet, “I don’t know. I’ve never watched TV
this late.”

“It’s not worth the tired mornings.”

The crowd starts clapping as a new guest walks out from behind
a curtain and sits down in the nylon chair next to the host’s desk. The
guest waves to the audience, the band continues playing and the host asks
his first question at the end of the audience clapping.

“Mom’s light woke me up. It was slipping through the crack
under my door. I don’t know why she sleeps with the light on.”

Dad keeps his eyes fixed on the TV, keeps silently hoping that
the boy will move on. He thinks about his wife in bed, sleeping with the
light bleating in her face like a safety net underneath reality.

“I’ve tried sleeping with a light on, dad. I can’t do it. But
mom does it all the time. Sometimes, when she falls asleep with the light
on I… ” He shakes his head and says, “Nevermind.”

Dad turns to his son. Now the light is flickering off the boy’s
brow, peppering his face with splotches of blues and greens and reds all
coming from the television. The boy rests his arm on the arm of the couch
and gives a deep yawn while his father stares at him, piercing his mind for

“What was it you were going to say, son?”

The boy remains silent.

“You know, you *are* up past your bedtime.”

The boy maintains his stubborn appearance, mouth closed,
eyebrows slanted, eyes narrowed. Slowly he lifts himself off the couch and
begins walking upstairs. Dad chases after him, although he’s just a couple
paces away.

“Okay, okay. You called it. Want to take a ride somewhere,
then?” The boy shrugs at this question, moves his head lower to the ground
and makes streaks in the rust carpet with his big toe.

“We can go wherever you want as long as it’s in White Lake.”

The boy mutters something toward the floor. The carpet absorbs
it and dad leans in to hear what he has to say. “Ice cream.” He whispers it
into his ear as if it could summon the devil. Eating sweets before bed is
an utter no-no, but to have it in the middle of the night must be complete
sacrilege. But dad nods, grabs the boy around the waist and balances him on
his shoulders and around his head.

“Ice cream it is, bud.”

As the two walk upstairs, dad sees the dark hallway staring him
down in the middle of the kitchen. He sees his bedroom door open, but
completely dark. He opens the front door in the foyer while the boy laces
his shoes and he realizes that she’s not waiting anymore. It’s not the
first time she’s turned it off, but it’s the first time he’s noticed. It’s
the first time it really hurt him that she was done waiting.

“I’m ready!”

“Shh, quiet. Your mom and sister are still sleeping.”

“…I’m ready…” the boy says in a hushed voice.


Dad grabs the keys off the counter, unlocks the door and steps
outside telling the boy to wait so he can lock it again. They both walk to
the car and jump inside - dad even lets the boy sit in the front seat–and
as the SUV slowly backs out of the driveway, a warm light emerges from the
hallway; one that goes unnoticed to the two passengers driving out of sight.

A shadow breaks through from the recently ignited room. The
shadow is the woman, awake and breaking her waiting with proactivity. She
begins to think what her man is doing. She thinks he’s going to see his
mistress, thinks that she brought her son along too so maybe they could
have a midnight play date. The four of them going to get slurpees or going
to some park in the middle of the night–maybe even going to spend the
night over there while forgetting the wife who was waiting for him in bed.

Her soft footsteps tip-toe across the egg-shell carpeting. She
looks outside for a silhouette of their car, a darker shade of dark in the
current darkness: nothing. She remembers the idea of spontaneous nights out
with her husband. Midnight, when he used to look up from his book and tell
her to get dressed for the club. She still looked good back then. It was
before the kids, before the stretch-marks and the wrinkles and the varicose
veins. It was when he loved her and she loved him and there was nothing
that could spark an interrogation in favor of anything different. She wore
a sequin dress that night. It was blue and it clung to her hips like two
sick babies. She asked him if it made her look fat and he said no. She
asked him if it made her butt look big and he said no. She asked him if it
made her hips look big and he put his finger to her mouth, grabbed her at
the hips and lifted the dress over her head.

They decided to stay in that night, to drink and make love and
laugh at the world because of the way it tried to make people feel lonely.
But not them..

She makes tea, heats the water on the stove and pours the
steaming contents into a small cup. The smell of peppermint calms her
knotted stomach and her aching head. The poison of her thoughts begins to
filter out with each smell, with each cathartic drink. She turns the light
on in the dining room, sits at the kitchen table and drinks while the clock
ticks. She turns on the television and it’s the same late night show her
husband was watching. She turns it off and lays her head on the table,
closes her eyes and sleeps better there than in her bed.

The front door opening wakes her. Footsteps flood indoors from
the outside. It’s her boys. Or her little boy and some older stranger. The
stranger carries a plastic bag with a carton of ice cream, walks into the
kitchen to get a bowl until he sees her sitting at the table. He stops and
the boy tells him to hurry up, that he wants ice cream.

“Where were you?” She asks as if she didn’t notice the bag and
the boy’s begging for ice cream.

The man sees the look on her face, labels her hysterical. He
tries to calm her like he would their son. He tells her that they went to
the store. He tells her that the light from her lamp woke up the boy.

“You’re going to blame this all on me? He was up because I was
waiting for you?”

The boy cups his hands waiting for a bowl. He would’ve been
happy if somebody scooped the ice cream right into his hands. Dad looks at
his wife and tells her to stop. He tells her that the boy will be in bed
after he has a little bit of ice cream. He says he promised it to him.

She leaves with a hmph. She walks to the bathroom and closes
the door. Dad serves the boy his ice cream. He tells him to eat it at the
table and not to make a mess. He knocks on the bathroom door while the boy
sits in the kitchen, smacking his lips together while droplets of vanilla
and cookie dough fall down his chin and onto the table. His spoon rises and
falls like the piston in a car, ever so mechanical: a methodic movement
without any cognizance.

“Sweetie,” he says to her, but she’s quiet. He hears her
crying. He wonders if she’s slept at all this past week. He says her name
this time, but he hears nothing but her sobs. He turns and sees the boy
standing behind him, right in front of his own room. He has ice cream
dripping down his face and it makes dad force a smile. He takes the boy
into the kitchen to wipe off the sticky mess and the boy smiles at his
father thinking about what they said to each other in the car that night.
For the first time, he sees his father like a true human, and at that
moment he knows that he is loved. When the boy lies down to go to bed, his
mother still in the bathroom, he tells his father what he does every night.
He tells him that he wakes up at the same time–one a.m. on the dot; tells
him that he’ll see the light from his mother’s lamp slipping under his
door; tells him he gets out of bed, opens his door, tip-toes into his
mother’s room and turns the light off. He pulls the covers over her
shoulders and kisses on her head, turns off the TV or puts her nightly read
back on her nightstand. He whispers that he loves her while she feigns a
sleep and then tip-toes back to bed in a quieted scurry, falling asleep
until morning. He says he’s been doing it every night for the past week.
Every night he turns his mother’s waiting into bitter-sweet darkness.

His father smiles, lets the boy swing his father’s arm around
before he shuts off the light and closes the door. When he’s said
goodnight, he walks to the bathroom door and gives it a soft knock. He
hears nothing. So he sits on the carpet, back against the door, and he
smiles to himself knowing that every night she waited. For him, she waited.

--Story by Chad Patton
--Foreground photo by Doriana Maria
--Background photo by Lisa Guidarini