Jessica Treadway is the author of four novels and three story collections, including Infinite Dimensions, published in June, and Please Come Back to Me, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. An alumna of SUNY Albany, she is a Senior Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston. Learn more at https://www.jessicatreadway.com
TAKE WHAT YOU WANT
My father composed his note on the back of the last shopping list my mother ever wrote. She left it on the counter without making it to the store, and I threw it away when I was cleaning the house so people could come over after the funeral. But my father fished it out of the trash and told me what he wanted.
In cleaning the house, I decided to use my mother’s method, which was to do a task, then reward myself with a chapter from whatever I was reading. This is how I grew up, watching her dust or vacuum a room and then settle down with a book.
My father’s note said, “I and my children would like to thank the construction workers at the Glenville roundabout for the respect they showed as the hurst went by them. They all removed there helmets and bent heads as we past by. Thank you very much from the family of Constance McGarry Lee.”
He handed it to me. I read it and must have winced. “What?” he said.
My mother would have been embarrassed by the mistakes. But pointing them out would embarrass my father, and he was the one who could still feel anything. I considered asking “Do you want me to edit it for you?” since that’s my line of work, but then I remembered how after the funeral, my brother had taken over as host in the receiving line, even though my father stood first. I knew my brother believed he was helping, saving Dad from having to spend a lot of energy on other people, but the whole time our father just looked confused, then hurt, then tired. Not angry—never angry, no matter how much it would have been the right thing for him to feel. My mother always had enough of that for the two of them. I figured it was probably what killed her, all that anger building up inside until there was no place for it to go, but I was afraid to ask anyone in my family if they thought this, too.
“Nothing,” I said to my father. “Just, you know, it’s painful.”
He nodded. “You and me both.”
I’d sat next to him in the car behind the hearse when we went through the rotary, my brother on the other side of me. Our father was the one who noticed first what the construction workers were doing, and he pointed it out to us. I cried a little, and Tony whispered that I was a lightweight.
“Very classy,” my father murmured. He’d raised a hand against the window to acknowledge the workers’ gesture, though they wouldn’t have seen it because their heads were bowed. “She would really have liked that.”
I posted my father’s note to the community’s social website, and it got a lot of thumbs up. My brother drove back to Columbus the next day. I told my father I’d stay for a week or two, to help him sort out Mom’s things and get used to being without her. He smiled, and I appreciated his not pointing out what a silly thing I had said.
“What about work?” he asked then. “They can do without you?”
I explained that they wouldn’t be doing without me—that I’d be able to do most of my assignments remotely, and the others could wait. He seemed to think it meant something about how important I was, that I had this option, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t correct him.
Among my mother’s belongings, I didn’t find any secrets. But then, I hadn’t expected to.
I both didn’t want to be there and didn’t want to leave. My father both could and could not take care of himself. I didn’t have to cook much because of all the condolence casseroles, but I kept the house neat, and every day at lunchtime I went to the grocery store. I didn’t have to—the fridge was full—but I liked going because the house was so quiet, with my father back at work, that I thought I might go nuts otherwise. Kroger was bright and ordinary and filled with people. It gave me something normal but not hard to do.
A week and a half after the funeral, in the checkout line, I ran into Mark Spilka. We both used to spend our lunch hour in the school library instead of the cafeteria; there were two big easy chairs next to a fake mantel above a fake fireplace, and in this way we ended up sitting next to each other though we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to do so. I read books and he wrote them, scribbling fast in a Star Trek notebook and sometimes giggling out loud, amusing himself (or at least, that’s how it seemed to me) with his own genius. Sometimes he read a line out loud to me, and I have to admit he was good. I recognized it even then. He wrote less about what happened than about the people it happened to, and this intrigued me. There was more to him than what we all saw, I remember thinking, and I also remember thinking that this was profound of me. I said he should let me read his stories someday, and he said, “In a few years you can pay for them like everyone else,” and I laughed, and he looked insulted.
He was a funny mix, both a brain and a burnout, which fascinated me because I thought you had to choose. Everyone else seemed to have to choose.
The only actual class we took together was an English elective, Song Lyrics as Poetry, taught by a short but otherwise enormous woman named Ms. Amato. She was young and pretty, but of course the only thing most people noticed about her was that she was fat.
At Kroger, Mark was ahead of me in the line. He said he’d seen that my mother had died, that he was sorry. I asked if he’d ended up writing the Great American Novel, and he said, “Still working on it,” which I thought was kind of cheeky until I realized he was making fun of himself.
He asked what I was doing with my life, and I described my job at the publishing house, making it sound more interesting and important than it actually was. He said, “That’s not what I meant, but okay,” and I remembered how much power he’d always had to make me feel stupid.
On top of being a brain and a burnout, Mark had also been mean. One day we were all sitting in the classroom waiting for Ms. Amato, and he and this other burnout Brian cued up the sound system so that “Fat-Bottomed Girls” began playing right as she came in. Ms. Amato turned dark red and tried to smile as she reminded them that she was a woman, not a girl, and it would serve them in later life if they bothered now to learn the distinction.
At Kroger Mark waited for me to check out, even though it took a while, and as we exited he said we should grab a drink. I was flustered: was Mark Spilka asking me out? “Right now?” I said, and he said no, he had to go back to work, but he’d be at The Bitter End after dinner if I wanted to meet him.
I didn’t tell my father I was going on a date, both because I didn’t know if that’s what it was and because I didn’t want him to think I was disrespecting our family’s grief. I told him I was meeting up with an old friend from high school who needed some editing help, and he asked who it was and I made up a name, and he said, “Good for you, honey. You can’t let all this consume you.”
It wasn’t consuming me, which I felt guilty about. But there was no point in saying so.
I kept telling myself it didn’t matter what I wore to meet Mark, which is why I got so aggravated trying on three tops before I settled, not all that happily, on a fourth. But I tried to let go of it as I drove the short distance to Four Corners. He was waiting for me outside the bar, and I appreciated his guessing that I might not like walking into it alone. He asked what I wanted and though what I wanted was a vodka tonic, I said Coke because I didn’t want to let my guard down. He went to the bar and came back with my drink and a glass of beer, which he made a point of telling me was an O’Doul’s. Then I must have looked surprised, because he said, “Yeah, I’m sober. Booze and pot both, almost two years.”
I congratulated him then blushed, unsure if that was appropriate or not, but he seemed to appreciate it. We talked a little about high school, and I asked if he remembered the song he and Brian had blasted that day when Ms. Amato entered the room. However Mark answered, I thought, would tell me what I needed to know about which kind of person he’d turned out to be.
He winced and looked down at the floor. “Yeah. Of course. I was an asshole back then. The drugs didn’t help, but I can’t blame it on that.” He took a long swig of the nonalcoholic beer. “I wish she was still alive, so I could go back and make amends.”
When he said that, I realized I felt the same way about my mother. It was a jolt—so simple, so true, yet it hadn’t occurred to me before.
And yet, I thought, amends for what?
It was my turn to say something, but my brain went blank. I might as well have ordered the vodka, after all. Mark seemed to pick up on this, and I felt grateful that he took it upon himself to keep the conversation going. “Amato was cool, though. Coming up with that save about being a woman instead of a girl. I mean, not exactly a save. She was pretty crushed. But you know what I mean.”
I nodded. Until he said “crushed” I hadn’t remembered exactly how our teacher had looked, when she realized that everybody understood the song was directed at her. To change the subject I asked Mark where he worked, and he told me Ace Hardware. I must have looked surprised, because he said, “I know. Underachieving. But I’m working on it.”
Again he waited for me to take my turn, and again when I didn’t, he filled in. “So listen, it wasn’t an accident, running into you earlier. I go out to get my lunch every day, and I saw you a couple of times there already.”
Well, if he meant to distract me from the image of Ms. Amato being humiliated, it worked. “You mean, as in stalking?” Right away I regretted implying that I thought I was somebody worthy of being stalked.
“I wouldn’t call it that,” he said. “More like working up my nerve.”
Was he trying, now, to humiliate me? I dared to look at him straight on, not taking my eyes away until I believed he might have meant what he said. This flustered me more than being humiliated, which I would have known how to deal with.
Mark lowered his voice and leaned forward. “I read your father’s note on the community board. I saw you were the one who posted it, so I knew you saw the mistakes and didn’t fix them. I thought, That says something, right there. About you. And then when I saw you the second time in Kroger, I wanted to know what it was.”
I sat back in my chair. I hadn’t realized, until he said it, how much I’d wanted to talk to someone about how I felt posting that note.
“And I know you probably won’t believe me,” Mark went on, “but those times in the library, during lunch? That was my favorite part of the day. We have this saying in the program, You’re only as sick as your secrets, so I figured hey, why not tell this one and see where it goes?”
The line sounded glib, and I wondered if he’d practiced or at least planned it. “Well,” I said, hearing the word come out in a whisper. I made myself sit up straighter and summoned my voice. “I appreciate that.”
He seemed to guess I wanted to change the subject. “It was sweet, what those construction workers did in the rotary. Showing respect for your mom.” He finished his near-beer and signaled for another. “She would have liked that.”
I squinted at him. “What do you mean? You didn’t know my mother.”
“No, but I mean anybody would like it, right? That kind of thing happening when the procession passes through.”
I said I guessed so, and looked down at the table. It was all a little surreal by that point, I admit. Sitting across from Mark Spilka at The Bitter End, feeling that little shock of electricity every time I said the words “my mother” because they were always followed by the moment of remembering she didn’t exist anymore.
“Actually,” Mark said, and when I looked up again, he had what I’d call a sheepish expression on his face—something I’d never imagined seeing there. “Since you bring it up, I did know your mom. A little.”
“You did? How?” I pictured her in the hardware store, striking up a conversation with the young man showing her where the light bulbs were.
“We went to meetings together.” Mark closed his fist around the new glass set down in front of him. “I mean, we didn’t go to them together. But I saw her there.”
“What kind of meeting?” I both knew and didn’t know. I understood what kind of meeting Mark had to go to. But what he said about my mother also being there made no sense.
He told me she’d begun appearing at his regular “nooner” two months ago. I laughed, remembering who was sitting across from me, then said, “I don’t even know why you’d think that was funny.”
He frowned. “I wouldn’t joke about something like this.”
“You want me to believe my mother was an alcoholic?” I pronounced the word with more derision than I would have, if I’d been thinking about it. “She was practically a teetotaler. Her father drank too much, and she never wanted to be like him.”
Now Mark nodded, as if he’d already known all this. It was infuriating. “She did it in secret,” he said. “Like a lot of us do.”
“That’s impossible. She couldn’t have hidden that from us.”
Yet even as I said it I realized that yes, she could have. My brother and I both lived hours—states—away now. She could have begun drinking in the house when she was alone, or at her job in the elementary school library, and she could also have started going to meetings at noon, on her lunch hour, without anyone knowing. Our father was busy at the plant all day, and even when he was home, he’d never been big on noticing things. Once, my mother had a skin biopsy and came home with a bandage over the spot above her lip, which she had to leave on for a day. She told me later, seeming amused, that he never mentioned it.
But I don’t think she took this as a sign that he didn’t love her, and I didn’t, either. It seems more as if he just took his family for granted, which, to be honest, I don’t see anything wrong with. Isn’t that—when you come right down to it—what families are for?
I reached for the lime in my Coke and squeezed it as hard as I could. “Come on,” I said to Mark. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
He shook his head. “No, really, Steph. I mean it. I wouldn’t.”
“Because that’s really fucked up, you know. She just died. My mother just died.”
“I know that.” He said it in almost a whisper. “I know she did. I’m sorry.” He shifted in his seat. “I think she was getting ready to tell you all. She was pretty sure none of you knew, including your father. That she drank, and that she got sober. It was eating her up, both those things. She was going to write you and Tony letters, and tell your father in person. But then what happened happened.”
There was music playing somewhere; it felt loud and hot in my head. Mark made some sort of figure with his two hands on the table—a heart, maybe, or maybe it was a knot. I couldn’t tell from my angle. The expression on his face was one I’d never seen there before: Mark Spilka doubted himself. It might have made me feel sicker than anything else, even more unlikely and upside-down than what he’d told me about my mother, which I didn’t believe.
I didn’t say so, though. I didn’t say anything. My silence obviously made Mark uncomfortable, and he kept talking. “Listen, Steph, I shouldn’t really be saying any of this. Not that I can do anything about it now, but I’m having second thoughts about telling you. I just thought you should know, and I thought she’d want you to know. Technically, it was wrong of me.” He fidgeted, waiting for me again to say something, and when I didn’t, he excused himself to the restroom.
I stared at him as he moved away, and then I stared at the place he’d left opposite me. I reached across the table and took a big gulp of his nonalcoholic beer.
What had I thought, or hoped? That it was not an O’Doul’s at all, that I’d feel alcohol rushing to my blood, a sign that everything he was telling me was bullshit?
When he came back I’d composed myself enough to ask, “I don’t suppose you have any proof of this, or anything? About my mother?”
“Proof?” He held both palms up. “What kind of proof?”
“I don’t know. Texts. Something. Whatever.”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Because I don’t believe you.”
The smile disappeared and he took his seat again slowly, as if afraid he might injure himself. “So you think I could have made all this up, and asked you out so I could tell you a cruel lie? Why would I do that? Why would anyone?”
“I don’t know. Just to hurt people.” I pointed at him. “You’re Mark Spilka. You tell me.”
He flinched, then studied me for another long moment before he said, “I’m not lying, Steph. But I can’t force you to believe me. We have a saying in the program, for when people have trouble with the whole higher-power thing: Take what you want and leave the rest.”
“Yeah, well.” I snorted. “I’m leaving all of it. You haven’t changed one bit.”
He had a decision to make, then. I saw the struggle behind his eyes. If he’d made a different one, would it have been better for both of us? At least better for him—I knew it then and I know it now, to the extent that I let myself think about that moment.
But what he did was give me the smile I remembered from high school. “So what do you think, Stephanie?” he said, and here came a chill from the way he pronounced my full name, drawing the syllables out. “About Ms. Amato. Did they have to use hydraulics to get her into the hurst, or what?”
I gasped, and stood so quickly my chair fell backward from the force, causing a clatter that made everyone else in the bar turn to look at us. “You’re still an asshole,” I told him. It was not a word I said a lot, and it came out softer than the others, but it was clear he heard it. “I thought sober people were supposed to be… not assholes.”
He pointed at me as if to say, Right. Gotcha! But I could see his hand shaking.
When I got home my father was sitting in my mother’s favorite chair, watching her favorite crime series. She’d loved seeing people figure things out. My father turned the volume down and remarked that I was home early, and I said it had been an easy job, the one my friend had asked me for help with.
I went into the kitchen and poured a glass of water, then drank it as I looked out the window into the night. How many hours had my mother spent doing just this—looking through this same window, and not really seeing anything out there? Who had she been, and had I known her or not? I understood then that this was the night my life split into Before and After. I’d heard people say that about an accident that left them changed in some way, or about someone they loved dying.
But it didn’t happen to me when my mother died. It happened when I decided not to believe the truth. How much would I give to go back and unlearn the habit I began practicing that night? You name it, it’s yours. I’ve lost so much to it, I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t give.
I went back and watched the rest of the show with my father. At the end, I said my boss had called and they needed me back, after all. He told me how much he appreciated my having stayed this long, how he couldn’t have gotten through it without me. Then he made me promise that if I ever needed anything, I’d be sure to let him know.