by Jenny Falloon
I’d had little contact with my father in the year since my mother’s death. I would have had none at all if my sister Carly hadn’t phoned me on three occasions to tell me how he was coping with his grief – a phrase that always irritates me for some reason – and to invite me to drop by her condo in San Francisco for a drink. She said he would be there. And there he was, sitting on the ivory-colored sectional that she must have paid at least six grand for, each time with a different woman.
The first was Claudine. Stocky, French, and with a bosom that preceded her like the prow of a ship, she had been our cleaning lady for years and was married to a seaman from Liverpool until he died of lung cancer. She knocked over a vase on the mantlepiece back when I was in college and snoozing on the couch one hot afternoon, Intro to Calculus on my lap, and I awoke to a stream of Liverpudlian invective.
The last time I’d seen her was at the memorial service, where she sat in the front row dabbing her tears and gazing up at the portrait of Mom in a pink ski jacket that Carly had had transferred – nicely, I must say – onto a cloth banner that swayed softly in the breeze off of Richardson Bay.
Was she still cleaning the house for Dad, making him little cassoulets he could keep in the freezer, even an occasional tarte tatin? Vacuuming the carpet around the LazyBoy where he would lounge watching Fox News after a day perfecting the teeth of Marin County adolescents, with a double martini and a bag of Doritos? He could do worse, I thought, hanging up my jacket.
I try to look smart when I’m seeing my sister. She told me once that I dressed like a slob, and she may have been right. So I went to the consignment store in town – back when stores were still open when they wanted to be, and you didn’t have to be a dentist or a barber to be essential – and some older man who was my size and had a modicum of taste had died, fortunately, so I got some lightweight trousers and a blue sport jacket for summer and three Massimo Dutti T-shirts that, even if I say it myself, make me look quite dashing. With Mom gone and no girlfriend right now, I listen to Carly.
The second woman was Eva. Lean in that feral way that women have, with impeccably cut silver hair, Eva had been married for years to a wealthy cardiologist and lived nearby. She had been hovering since he died – felled, fittingly, by a heart attack – waiting for Dad to be freed from his current marriage so she could slide him like a piece of quiche into the next.
Eva would be seated at the kitchen island, her lovely legs crossed, during our annual Christmas party, when the mansion was home to five fully decorated Douglas firs – my mother, God love her, being no stranger to vulgarity – when I drifted in, the underachieving son looking for a grilled prawn or two, as though she were the lady of the manor, slicing the salami or buffing the red wine glasses.
The third one was Jean.
“Is he seeing Jean?” Carly was in her kitchen trying to open a bottle of Pinot Noir. It amazes me that Carly, the smart one, the achiever, the one that causes Dad to nod sagely and his brown eyes to glaze over when he speaks of her, can prosecute a wrongful death lawsuit but not open a bottle of wine without a mess.
“Let me do that,” I say, gallantly, in my Massimo Dutti shirt.
Her long brown hair is loose, not wound up in a bun in typical I-brook-no-nonsense fashion. Is she in playful mood? She is a smart woman, my sister, a little driven perhaps, and I watch her take me in as she does now with a sort of perpetual despair.
“It’s OK, I’ve got it. And yes, he is seeing Jean, as you so coyly put it. As would seem to be his right.”
“I know. I know.” There is a platter of cheeses on the marble counter, sweating in the warm June air. Cambozola, Manchego, Cheddar, Gruyere, and a couple of creamy French ones that only Carly will ever have heard of.
“What about Eva?”
“That was short lived. As I thought it might be. There’s not a lot there.”
“And there is with Jean?”
“Well, there’s more, I guess.” She sighs. “I don’t know, Brian. This is new for us all, isn’t it? Especially him. Seeing him with someone else still upsets me. I have this weird sense that Mom is looking down at me saying, Are you going to put up with this? But what can we do? We can’t expect him to stay single forever. He hates being alone.” She raises her eyebrows. “He’s even talking about signing up for eHarmony.”
“Omigod!” Online dating. Somehow you never picture your parents doing anything like that. But I can see him at it, gazing out of computers across the land,, good-looking for his years, affable, well off, still has his hair, not thin any more but doesn’t have that belly men get, good listener, droning on about restaurants, movies, travel, walks on the beach. Sex.
She hands me a glass of wine with bits of cork in it. “You need to go and see him now and then and stop blaming him for Mom’s death. You have to accept what’s happened, Brian. He misses you. I think. You’re the son. That kind of thing matters to him. You could advise him on this stuff, other women, how to behave if he ever meets someone he doesn’t already know.” She puts plates and paper napkins and olives and nuts on a tray, and we look at the two of them sitting stiffly on the sectional – the joys of open plan – like soldiers peaking out at the enemy.
Dad is wearing a short-sleeved shirt Mom bought him years ago and what look like cargo pants. What next? A man bun? Tattoos? He’s an orthodontist! I remind myself, picturing him fishing around in the closet, wondering what to wear for a date with Jean, his wife’s best friend, whom he’s never liked anyway. And I feel sorry for him, a little, having to start again with the whole shebang. Finding someone new.
“She’s someone he knows,” Carly says, sotto voce, as we head in. “She’s been around forever.”
She even looks like Mom. A little taller but the same stocky build, the thick blonde hair, the heart-shaped face, the sweet smile. People used to think they were sisters.
Journalism was still a career all those years ago when she and Mom drove out from Toledo, Ohio, in an old red Mustang that had been my grandfather’s. Before the Internet changed everything. The job still had some status, a future even. Jean had a Bachelor of Arts degree, the right progressive politics, and she had no trouble getting entry jobs with local newspapers or NGOs, always with the hope that one of them would lead to something better.
But it never happened. Things would start out well, the job would seem like a good fit, she was sure this was it, but then it would end. Either the job wasn’t for her, or they’d decide she wasn’t for it. She failed to meet deadlines. And she was chronically late. Not just now and then, with reason, but often enough to suggest a resistance to turning up on time, anywhere.
“They’ve let her go!” Mom hung up the phone in the kitchen one weekend morning, blue eyes wide in dismay, looking at us all seated around the breakfast table. “I’m not surprised! She was late again this week. Why does she do it?” – she clasped her forehead with her palm – “and he’s finally said Enough. Now, of course, she thinks she’s been mistreated. But he’s been warning her for weeks!”
Dad and Carly and I ate our scrambled eggs and bacon and hash browns quietly, the clouds drifting across a pale blue sky. We’d been hearing about this for weeks, seen it coming. Instead of seeming a villain, the boss had been earning my sympathy. I pictured him in a shabby office somewhere off Market, Jimmy Stewart with thinning hair, smoking, sleeves rolled up, working always to a deadline. And there was Jean, arriving late again.
“She doesn’t want to work,” Dad topped up his coffee. “She wants to be a lady of leisure. Always has. That’s what her mother was, and that’s what she wants to be. Feminism is all very well, but some women just want a life of ease.” He paused, expecting Mom to object. Then he went on.
“Would you hire Jean?”
But short as her stint with Bob had been, it changed her life. That was where she met James, charismatic James, James of the golden crowns, one on each side. You couldn’t miss them amongst those impeccably white, even teeth, golden flashes whenever he smiled. And James smiled a lot. “$2500 at least, each of them,” said Dad.
James had an MBA from Berkeley, four young kids, and an angry wife. He was a corporate exec with one of the big oil companies, with a couple of pals in low-level crime. Drugs were available, as were women. But by the time Jean caught on to this, she was smitten. James was Black. He was racy. She was hoping once they were married – she was pregnant already with William – and he discovered the steady pleasures of suburban life, he’d dump the dodgy pals and stay home at night.
And he did get an expensive divorce from the angry wife, and take up golf, and make a lot of noise about being a father to William and Genevieve (who came along later, by which time he and Jean were married). But the marriage was turbulent from the start. There were always other women. This led to rage and despair and threats of divorce from Jean, followed by apologies and promises and devotion from James, as he threw himself loudly into family life. And for a while, a kind of shaky domesticity would reign up there in the split-level.
We happily fell in with this, Mom in particular. Driving home after a barbecue or a party at their place, Dad would announce grandly that James was ‘Okay’ after all, he’d done well for himself, while Affirmative Action may have helped, and we’d all been too quick to judge the marriage. Even Jean’s left wing politics weren’t that bad if she didn’t drone on too long.
We were fooled, of course. It always came to an end. There’d been someone else all along. It was all so different from the tidy white bread life we were living.
“Do you still blame your father for what happened?¨
She is still on the plump side. Zoftig, they call it. James is in New York now with his third wife, a sitcom actress twenty years his junior. I wonder vaguely what lockdown has done to a career in sitcoms. There is a butterfly pin on her dress, and only now, as I’m helping her on with her jacket, do I recognize it. I am taken aback and shouldn’t be. Dad will have been getting rid of Mom’s things. And why not? Who knows? Maybe it was a gift from Jean.
“Not as much as I did.”
Mom listened to Dad. And this was not the first time she had fallen asleep in a bathtub in a hotel in a foreign land because she’d taken too much Ambien. But this time Dad had fallen asleep too, in his pajamas, watching Bridge Over the River Kwai. The combination of big dinner, lots of alcohol, hot bath, and Ambien had been fatal.
“You know, Brian” – I heard a lecture coming. No matter how old you are, there’s always a lecture coming – “your Mom always did what she wanted. I know. And I’ve known your Mom for decades.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
She didn’t seem to hear me. “People do foolish things all the time. We can’t blame your father for something your mother persisted in doing.”
We look at Dad and Carly on the balcony, admiring the roses. She has inherited the gardening gene.
“Did you know it had happened before?” I say.
“In Istanbul. But he got there in time. Same thing: big dinner the night they arrive, too much to drink, late back to the hotel, she’s anxious about the next day and her shoulder hurts, so she takes a hot bath. She did it all the time. He stays awake – he’s supposed to – she calls out to him now and then, he can hear her in the tub. Only this time he didn’t. Stay awake. No one was told then either. Just Carly and me. Not even you.”
We are silent.
“I know I sound bitter. And you’re right. She did what she wanted. But he is a doctor, Jean, a medical man. And she listened to him, she always did. Remember that time in Disneyland? The Ambien should have been stopped. Somehow. She took it like it was Aspirin.”
I feel exhausted, suddenly, tired of talking.
“You know what I hate most?” I’d never said this before, not even to Carly. “That she died in such a dreadful way. Did you know one person a day dies – drowns – in a bathtub? In the States. One a day, on average, 355 a year. As though it makes any difference, whether you die crossing the street or in a bathtub.”
“I’ve got bad news.” He was calling from the hotel. Then he stopped, and I thought maybe something was wrong with his cell phone. But he was still there, l could sense him there on the line, and when he didn’t say my name, I had this weird sense that he’d forgotten it, momentarily.
Hearing his ghostly voice at that hour in the darkness of my room, I wished suddenly that I wasn’t thousands of miles away, that I’d taken this one last trip with them. That I was sitting there in the hotel breakfast room with its morning buzz, a café au lait steaming in front of me, in one of those sturdy white cups they use, Mom across from me with a sly wink if Dad were to make one of his stupid comments about the French.
I pictured the dentists and their spouses yakking about whether to go to The Louvre or The Pantheon or do a Bateau Mouche on the Seine, where to meet for dinner later on, and letting Mom know if the rooms were big enough (never) and the showers hot enough (rarely), and annoying everyone, certainly the French and the English, with their loud American ways.
I pictured the waitresses scurrying in and out with the pots of coffee – Decaf, Hazelnut, Viennese, Expresso – and filling up the trays with sausages and bacon and scrambled eggs and scalloped potatoes – we’re in France! – and the bowls of fruit salad, the croissants, the brioches, the blueberry muffins in their wire baskets, and those little silver bowls with the strawberry jam.
“Brian,” he said, bringing me back to the dimness of my room. “I have bad news, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry. Your mother died last night. Here. In the hotel. She drowned in the bathtub.”
It is three months now since I saw him at Carly’s, and it is the end of summer. Lockdown has been eased, so I drop in late one afternoon. Covid worries him, but I’m young and I’m skeptical. I wear a mask. I do as I’m told. But that’s it.
It is warm still but the day has a bite that seems to come from nowhere, that has me thinking of dead leaves on gravel, of cold, wet, winter.
I knock gently, firmly. I am family. When there is no answer, there is a split second of panic. But he is only 62, I say to myself. I let myself in and call out in the hallway. What if he is cavorting with Jean in the bedroom or the shower or worse, cavorting with someone he’s met through eHarmony, someone twenty years younger. Like James. There was no car in the driveway, but who knows?
On the island in the kitchen, where Eva would swing her lovely legs, are the remains of a ham sandwich – he never would eat his crusts – a can of Stella Artois and a bag of Doritos. The big carved wooden bowl – the Nigeria trip? – that for years displayed mangos and papayas and other exotic fruits, now holds s bunch of bananas, a jumbo pack of KitKat, and a pair of binoculars that have been knocking around for years.
Mom had the living room windows replaced two or three years ago, and Claudine must have been at them of late with Gallic zest, for there is not a streak to be seen. I look across Raccoon Strait at Angel Island, green and lush as always, and I think of Carly for some reason. What goes through her mind these days when she stands here and looks at this view? Does she think of the girl she was growing up in this house? Does she have moments when some part of her would would give it all up to be that girl again? Certainly not.
I can see him down there among the roses. He was always the gardener. Mom had no patience for it. They would go to the nursery once every year in spring, and she would buy impatiens, petunias, lobelia, maybe a gardenia, and he would buy a single rosebush, for her, usually a David Austen. The last one, the summer before lockdown, had been Vanessa Bell.
“Are you still seeing Jean?” I call out, heading toward him across the lawn.
“No. I’m not.” He straightens up and grins at me above the bushes, secateurs in hand. “It’s great to see you, Brian. It really is.” The old, crooked smile. He’s gained some weight.
To my surprise, I’m disappointed. I haven’t forgotten that day at Carly’s. They would be an odd couple, my father and Jean, but those are some of the best. Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft. Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti.
“Do you have time for a cup of tea? Better yet, a glass of wine?” He looks off to the west. “Is the sun over the yard arm? What does that even mean?” He shakes his head in bemusement. “What is a yard arm? I have a nice Chardonnay in the fridge. I just opened it last night, and I only had one glass.”
“Sure. I’ll take a glass of a nice chardonnay.”
We go up to the deck and sit down with our Chardonnay and some Doritos looking out over Raccoon Strait.
“Brian,” he says. “What is this farce you have to go through if you don’t want to live the rest of your life alone?” I don’t know where he’s going with this, so I sit tight with my Chardonnay.
“She says I came on too strong for her. When I kissed her in the hot tub. That I behaved inappropriately. That’s the word these days: Inappropriate. Inappropriate for what? A meeting of the United Nations? A sex club?”
“We had gone to this restaurant in St. Helena. It was a bed and breakfast place, too, nice place. That’s why they had the hot tub. And it was her idea. After dinner, which was good, she suggested we try the hot tub. Can you imagine me in a hot tub? Your mother hated anything like that. We’d had some wine, of course, and I had a brandy and she had Drambuie, I think it was, and we were feeling mellow. So we toddled over to the hot tub and there was no one else around, so we disrobed and got in. And then after awhile I tried to kiss her. I did kiss her. Fulsomely, as they say. Isn’t that what hot tubs are for?”
And now, she isn’t returning my calls or answering my emails. I don’t know what she’s so upset about. She’s not an ingenue. She knows what men are like. Good Lord, if anyone knows what men are like, it’s Jean. I have gone from ‘Prominent orthodontist, newly available!’ to ‘Harasser of dead wife’s best friend.’”
“Don’t worry about it, Dad. It’ll blow over. Women are in a strange place these days. #MeToo and so on. They want men to behave better.”
“I get that. I support that. But do they overreact at times? I assumed that if we were going to a hot tub, she was open to a certain kind of behavior.”
“They do. Sometimes they overreact a little. But they’ll sort it.”
“This may seem odd to you, to someone of your generation, but I was never unfaithful to your mother, not once. I married her and that was it for other women. They just didn’t interest me. Not even a one-night stand, at one of those dental conferences in Cleveland or Miami, where women were all over the place.”
“Did you just come on too strong?”
“I must have. I can be clumsy. I don’t know what they want. Maybe they don’t either.” He looks off into the distance.
It had rained last night, an indication of cooler weather to come. He’s let the lawn go, I’m thinking as I sit there, the grass is getting long. I could come by and do it for him every couple of weeks. Keep track of the women in his life, give him some tips, as Carly would say. Go easy on the lunging.
“Do you remember that time years ago,” I say, “when Mom and Jean took all of us kids to Disneyland? By train. Overnight. It was the Coast Starlight Express that ran down the coast. You dropped us off in Oakland, and we got into Anaheim the next day. We stayed in this Godawful motel with hideous green carpeting that was filthy, and the furniture was crap, legs broken, that kind of thing. And Carly got sick. She had a cheeseburger with onions and chips and a coke and two pieces of lemon meringue pie. And she threw up. On The Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“I don’t. I guess you had to be there.”
“Anyway, we wanted to stay another day, and it was okay with the motel, of course – Who would want to stay there? – Jean was okay with it, and Mom phoned you to say we were staying another day, and you said No. You wanted us to come back. And Mom went along with it. I never understood why. Why you said No, and why she went along.”
I had to get it out, once and for all.
“If you could be so sure about that, so sure that Mom would do what you said, why couldn’t you do that in Paris? With the Ambien. Take it from her? Hide it. Do something. Just not let her have it when she was taking a hot bath late at night after lots of alcohol?”
He sighed. “Brian, you have to stop blaming me for your mother’s death. She did what she wanted. Not always but in recent years. She loved running those trips, that’s what you forget, or maybe never knew, that she was good at it. Very good.”
We watched as a lone sailor tacked his sloop into the wind and headed away from us toward Richardson Bay. Then he slapped his knee briskly, glad the moment was over. “I’m trying to be more likable, Brian, a better man, less of a bully. That’s why the thing with Jean was such a shock.”
He was right. I was going to have to let go of my bitterness. Mom had chosen how she wanted to live, fatal as it had turned out to be. I had to make peace with that, with the randomness of life, its chaos. I looked at him sitting there with his hapless expression and the nutty notion that he could change. Who does that? I had never been close to my father. I’d always been a Mommy’s boy. I guess I resented his favoritism for Carly. But what parent is perfect? Can you have two kids and not prefer one to the other?
And looking down at the rose garden he was so proud of – maybe it was the Chardonnay on an empty stomach, I’d had no lunch – I seemed to see the whole business newly, the mess ups we human beings are so good at, our foolishness: Mom and her determination to keep doing something well past the point of wisdom, Dad in his pajamas snoring on the bed while Alec Guinness strutted about in Burma, Jean’s breasts floating in the hot tub like rubber cupcakes, and finally the lunge in for the kiss.
And I imagined Mom smiling up at me, as always in the lingering days of summer, her dress a shaft of pink among the roses, the lawn behind her sloping down to the water, shaking her head in sorrow and disbelief: What a stupid way to die.
As it turned out, Dad is a new man these days. Maybe not as I expected but then, I’ve never never lost the woman I love, never had to start all over again.
He’s cooking, for one thing, decent stuff like Curried Prawns and Fish Stew. He’s golfing less and reading more. Last time I let myself in, there was a paperback copy of Madame Bovary on the dining table. Used, thumbed, it had seen life. Poor Madame Bovary. Even being French didn’t save her. She should have lived now. Was Claudine reading Flaubert while she ran the washing machine? In English?
“You’re reading Flaubert?” I said, taking a beer out of the fridge.
“Well, I thought I’d give it a try.” He looked a little sheepish. “A copy showed up at the clinic, and I’m always hearing it praised.”
He doesn’t watch Fox News anymore, and he listens to NPR. He says. He even misses a chance, these days, to make fun of the French, which is a good thing. He is seeing Jean again. They are planning a trip to Marseilles next year.
She phoned him a few weeks after the hot tub incident, as we call it, like Incident at Little Rock, or The Ox-Bow Incident. Maybe she felt she’d been hasty, that he wasn’t exactly Harvey Weinstein. Maybe she’d reflected on the shortage of good men around here or on how much Dad is worth. Crudely put, I know, but I don’t trust her, after The Hot Tub Incident.
And I was going to tell him that he shouldn’t either, that Jean may be a little nutty, the James years may have given her strange notions about who men are, their lusts.
Then I thought about it – without involving Carly, for once – and I decided it’s none of my business. If he wants to see Jean, why shouldn’t he? She wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Too plump, too much with the fake smile – like Mom at times – too unpredictable.
But really, it’s up to him who he sees, what he does, the risks he takes.
It’s his life.
Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago wrote articles for San Francisco Bay Area sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the US, The Bahamas, England and, currently, Spain. Since retirement, her writing has won prizes in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. Her short stories have appeared in The Writing Disorder, Belle Ombre, Tales From a Small Planet, CafeLit, CommuterLit and Eclectica Magazine. She writes satire, memoirs, flash fiction, and short stories.