My mother and I sit at opposite ends of her kitchen table. I drove up from Memphis this morning, at the urging of my two sisters, who say they’re getting worried. They want me to call afterwards, get my impressions. My mother and I are wearing facemasks. She’s a cradle-to-grave Democrat, used to feeling optimistic. Her hair is white.
One wall in the kitchen is covered with clipped-out newspaper and magazine articles from The Madisonville Messenger, Louisville Courier-Journal, Time, Newsweek. Upbeat pieces on local celebrations, Derby winners, Olympic athletes, the St. Louis Cardinals. There are articles about Hillary, the Obamas. I spot just a couple on Joe Biden, and I know she still holds a mild grudge against him because Barack selected him as a running mate over Hillary. I felt like it was a misplaced view; Biden was super-qualified to be vice-president. It was an argument we had years ago. She’s been doing this since I was a kid, cutting out and taping up news stories. She’d put them up on the fridge and after the fridge was covered, she’d go to a wall. They had a little grease-fire here, right after W was reelected, something to do with burning pork, and the walls got scorched. She had to start over after that.
At the moment, my mother has the storm door propped open and when the breeze comes in through the top half of the screen door, it rustles the articles, many of which have yellowed. It makes me think that winter is close, even if it’s only September.
My mother says she’s heard on the radio that Kamala Harris campaigns in tennis shoes. She wants to know if it’s true.
I confirm this, I’ve seen photos. Chuck Taylors, I say, probably sounding gruff because of the mask. I can get you a pair. High-tops if you want them.
She says, Don’t waste your money.
My sisters have bought her facemasks; all bright, solid colors. She’s chosen a purple one for my visit. She has weak lungs, emphysema, and, as she jokes, is on more meds than a megachurch preacher undergoing a seven-year IRS audit.
I’m wearing a surgical-type mask, which I realize now is a lousy idea.
I’m hit with a memory that’s fifty-plus years old: My mother taking my sisters and me to a public park in Tampa, where we lived at one time, so we could see an LBJ motorcade as it passed by. When it did, the tinted windows were up on the presidential limousine and there were little American flags sticking up from the four corners of the hood. We waved like crazy and it disappeared in the distance.
I am no spring chicken myself. I sense that one reason my mother keeps staring at me is because of how gray my hair has become.
My mother is a good mother and while more or less staying on the subject of politics, I remind her about that time in Tampa we waited for LBJ’s motorcade. I don’t mention this, but I wonder if her idea there was to make us feel like we were really part of America and proud of it and so on. Naturally, we were children.
I’m testing her, too, to be perfectly honest about it.
She says she it didn’t happen.
I offer the motorcade details, the little American flags.
She says, Motorcade … are you thinking of Kennedy?
I was a year old when Kennedy was killed. I don’t need to remind her of this. I say, It wasn’t Kennedy.
She says, The day Kennedy was assassinated in his motorcade was on a Friday.
Right, I say. This must’ve been three or four years later. When Daddy was training horses in Tampa.
Your daddy was a bum, she says.
I’m aware of that, I say.
Call your sisters, she says. Go on, call them. For a second, I think she means so they can verify the thing about my father. (Which they would.) But I get it, she’s talking about the LBJ motorcade.
My sisters, Kelly and Beth, are talkative. Beth, my younger sister, would’ve been a little baby at the time I’m thinking of, so she isn’t the one to ask. I lean back in my chair, tug down my mask. I dial Kelly, who lives in Louisville; I told her yesterday that I was driving up here this morning. Hey, I say.
Everything all right? she says.
Yeah, we’re just sitting here, I say.
What do you think? she says. I’ve just told her that my mother and I are together. I look to my mother for sympathy, even though it’s her I’m trying to keep this part of the discussion from. Like, does Kelly ever listen? We’re talking about LBJ, I say.
Not about him so much as that time we went to see his motorcade pass. Do you remember that?
Hmm, Kelly says. What’s the point of contention exactly?
It’s not a point of contention, I say. Jesus, I think. I say, It’s I something I remember …
But her memory isn’t… Kelly says.
I say, Do you …?
She says, Sure. We had that Chrysler old station wagon. Daddy wasn’t there, probably out chasing some barmaid. We dropped the tailgate and we sat and waited. For a long time as I recall. Hours.
I don’t remember that part, I say.
I do, she says. And the motorcade, it zoomed by.
Right, I say. I have that, too. Okay, well that solves it.
That was all? she says.
I say, Like I said, we couldn’t decide if it happened or not. I was starting to wonder if I dreamed it.
How do you think she is overall? my sister says. Is she wearing her mask? She doesn’t like wearing her mask.
Oh? I turn up one palm, as if to say to my mother, Does she ever stop?
Kelly says, She doesn’t want to wear it in the grocery store or anything.
I’d like my sister to lighten up. The scandal, her not wearing a mask… I think about saying this, but I catch myself, realize I’ll sound like a bastard son of Kellyanne Conway.
I guess I am starting to understand something.
Okay, thanks, I’ll talk to you later, I say. I hang up on her right after that.
I say to my mother, She says you don’t want to wear your mask to the grocery store. You’re wearing your mask with me here, but you don’t want to won’t wear it there? I don’t understand.
The store makes me wear it, so what does it matter? she says. You’ll try to make me feel guilty, so I put it on. She shrugs. It’s not like the air’s worth breathing anyway.
We’re alive, I say. The air is okay.
It’s just how I feel, she says. What did your sister say?
I say, Kelly says the LBJ thing happened. She says we waited for hours. Knowing she can use a little boost, I say, You’ve always been really good about that, you know what I mean?
You mean waiting? she says. She knows that isn’t it. She says, Well, I was raised that way. My father shook hands with Kennedy once, when he came to campaign here.
I’m thinking we might not be talking about the same thing. What I meant was that she always wanted us to be positive about life and the country we lived in. She might be talking about being a good Democrat. A good Democrat will wear their mask, I want to say. I guess the point is that she’s eighty-five years old and is too depressed to protect herself. I understand why my sisters are worried.
I say, What can I do?
In a moment, she says, You waved at LBJ’s motorcade. It’s gone now. She reaches up to rub her forehead; her thumb gets hung up in the strap that goes around her ear. She readjusts her mask. She takes in a measured breath, then another. I’m okay, she says. You don’t worry about me … it’s coming back to me, that motorcade. Your sister was right. We waited all day for that goddamn thing. It sped right on by. Guess they didn’t want to take any chances. Weren’t sure they were among friends. She and I wind up watching one another. She says, I am glad to see ya.
I say, Any time you want company … here isn’t that far away for me.
Hmm, she says.
I know, I say.
It’s all right, she says.
I say, What about those shoes? My mother doesn’t say anything. So, I say to her something she used to say to us a million times over. I say, It’ll get better. It sounds strange, coming from me. And not terrifically convincing.
She says, Sonny, take down your mask again. I don’t think it’ll hurt anything, so I do. Like my mother would ever place me in danger. She says, You look tired. I want you to go upstairs and take a nap before you drive back.
Maybe I’ll just spend the night, if that’s all right, I say.
That’s all right. How’s, ahm, is it Lauren? she says.
Laura, I say. I haven’t spoken to her in a while, Mom. I fix my mask back over the bridge of my nose.
We sit in the quiet of the kitchen. It’s the middle of September and there’s no breeze. It’ll come. Because I know she follows them, I ask her about the Cardinals, if they’re going to make a run in the playoffs.
She seems to think on it, though maybe her mind wants to focus on something other than baseball. I’ve never followed it too closely. I wind up thinking of my old room upstairs, the window I looked out every day when I was a teenager. Tomorrow morning, I’ll awaken, and the sunlight will probably be flooding in through that window. Almost certainly, I’ll lay there and try to imagine what I used to wonder about, how I wanted my life to turn out, if what I have is even close to that. I’m tell myself, In some ways … but of course that’s what you have to say. The sunlight will be pouring in. I’ll head downstairs, have coffee with my mother, and then it’ll be time to drive back to Memphis.
My mother says, Maybe next year.
Hmm? I say.
Her expression, from what I can see of it, seems a bit curious. The Cardinals? she says.
I want to joke with her about always saying the same thing. But more than anything, I appreciate it now. I say, Yeah, that would be great.
It might be pointless, but I’ve decided that when I get back to Memphis, I’ll get on Amazon and order her a pair of Chuck Taylors. (I can imagine my sisters’ reaction: This is your solution? Converse?) It’s possible that when the box arrives, she’ll remove the lid, eye the shoes and get a laugh, if only because she’ll know where they came from.
Andy Plattner’s forthcoming story collection, Tower, will be published by Mercer University Press next fall.