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Jessica Treadway has published four novels and three story collections, one of which, Please Come Back to Me, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her most recent collection is Infinite Dimensions. A recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is on the faculty at Emerson College in Boston and is also a proud alumna of the University at Albany.  


"There he is again,” my mother said, pointing out the window. “The boy on the skateboard. Hey, that would make a good title. Will you write that story? For me?”

She’d said things like this before, but usually seemed to be joking. This time, she did not. I told her “Sure,” even though there was nothing about the boy that interested or intrigued me enough that I would have thought to write about him. He didn’t pique my imagination in any way. I didn’t wonder anything about him as I often wondered about people I observed in the world and then used as templates for my fiction.

Like the woman I saw at the gym every time I went, who routinely climbed the stair-stepper so rapidly and for so long that sweat poured off her and pooled on the floor around the machine. Her eyes were closed and her face tilted toward the ceiling in what might have looked like rapture if you couldn’t see how much exertion it took to keep up with the pace she’d programmed. She’s punishing herself, I thought. One day I sat down and wrote a story about a woman who drank a pint of vodka every night because it was the only way she could fall asleep, woke up reeling, and headed to the gym to sweat out the poison she’d put in herself, and to sweat out her sin.

The boy on the skateboard was almost not even a boy at all—he might have been sixteen. To be honest, I formed the quick impression that he was something of a punk, with long hair he didn’t bother to sweep away from his eyes. If not exactly a punk, then an unremarkable teenager. Twice a day that weekend, he glided up the driveway of the house next door, went around to the back, uncoiled the long hose from its spool, and sent a long, wobbly spray over some kind of garden—flower or vegetable I couldn’t tell.

My mother lay on the couch under an afghan my grandmother, her own mother, had knitted for me when I was a baby. It wasn’t big enough to cover an adult, and I offered to find something else for her, but that was the one she wanted.

We spent a lot of the weekend watching TV. A couple of times a day I convinced her to go out to the driveway with me, to walk to the end and back, per the surgeon’s instructions. I fixed high-calorie meals for both of us, because she needed to put some weight back on, and I made up a chart so she’d know when to take her medications after I had to leave.

It was nice, like the old days when I lived there with her. I know we both felt that way. I told her I wished I could stay longer, and it was true. She understood that I had to get back to my job. I was still only an adjunct, at two different schools, and I couldn’t afford to miss any classes. In some ways it would have been easier if she’d acted more needy, or begged me to stay. Then, I could have resented her. As it was, I felt regretful and guilty. But I tried to set that aside so as to make the most of the two days we had.

We watched a lot of TV because her energy was still low from the eight days she’d spent in the hospital. I tried to persuade her to choose movies, or sitcom episodes we could order on demand, because the news was filled with unhappy stories, so much hatred in so many forms. But she wanted to catch up on what she had missed. When she felt up to it, we turned off the TV and talked. Much of it was about the old days, when we moved into that house after my father died when I was in high school. He left us with no savings and no insurance, a surprise I think my mother never got over even though it had been twelve years.

Later, she would refer to it as a blessing in disguise. The almost empty accounts forced her to go back to school for the undergraduate degree she’d interrupted when I was born. She’d always felt bad about being a quitter, and the diploma gave her a pride and a confidence I hadn’t seen in her before. By the time she went on the market there was too much competition for the jobs she would have enjoyed, so she took one that wasn’t as bad as a lot of others. In this way she paid for my own college, the mortgage on that house, our daily necessities and the extras that made both of our lives better than they would have been otherwise.   

When she dozed, I picked up my notebook and did my best to write a few lines about the boy on the skateboard, but my heart wasn’t in it, and they didn’t go anywhere. I’d thought that maybe I could come up with a very short but complete piece to read to her before I left, something like those early sketches of Chekhov’s about strangers crossing paths and civil servants who misunderstand each other in amusing or poignant ways. But really, I couldn’t imagine anyone who might interest me less than the boy who came to water the plants while the next-door neighbors were away.

My mother woke with a start and said, “Who are all these people?”

I said “What?” I wanted to ask if she’d been dreaming.

She said, “Oh. Sorry. Listen, I want to know what you think about something, Catherine. Why are people so awful to each other now? So mean-spirited? What is it that’s happened to us all?”

Her question threw me, I admit. It made me too sad to contemplate an answer. “I should start dinner,” I said instead. “While I’m doing that, why don’t you think about the boy on the skateboard, and give me something to work with? We can collaborate.”

“I’m not a fiction writer,” she said, but I told her it didn’t matter—you didn’t need to be a fiction writer to imagine somebody else’s life.

Over our spaghetti and meatballs, she asked about my real work, the collection of stories I was writing. I told her I’d hit a wall, a dead spot; it was hard for me to feel motivated, because I’d lost sight of what excited me about it in the first place. And with so much going on in the world, who cared? Was anybody actually reading anymore?

Now she was the one who sidestepped the question. “You’ll get it back,” she said. She’d been like this from the beginning, since I was a kid, encouraging me in my writing even though there’s hardly any money in it and also no security, unless you happen to luck into the kind of teaching job I hoped to have someday. I knew other people whose parents had either squashed the creativity right out of them or barely tolerated it, all but insisting—if not outright insisting—that they go into something “sustainable” instead.

If there was any money at all in writing fiction, it lay in novels, not stories, but stories were all I wanted to write. In middle school I’d been a good sprinter, but never managed to finish the cross-country course. A writer I admire said once that novels are like a lingering illness you might never get over, while stories are a blow to the solar plexus. I wanted to deliver that blow.

“I don’t understand how you can be so supportive,” I said to my mother, not for the first time. “Considering how unstable it all is. How unpredictable. And after Dad—”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Dad.” She took a sip of milk to wash down her second meatball, winced a little swallowing, then set down her glass and fork. “It’s what you want to do. You’re good at it. You work hard. You’ll be fine.” Another labored swallow.

“Besides, I love reading your stories. They make me feel something. And they let me be somebody else for a while.”

I blushed. I was thinking Where would I be without my mother?

“Just write from the heart,” she added, and I felt a stab of pity because, as she herself had just said, she wasn’t a fiction writer and didn’t know how it was done. All the things you have to take into account, like what narrative perspective to write from and what stereotypes to avoid. How tricky it is not to cross the line into sentimentality, or even to know where that line is, and to be as subtle as people believe they want you to be.

After she said she couldn’t eat any more spaghetti, I brought the dishes to the sink and made us sundaes, cutting up a banana and splitting it between the two bowls. I intended to pour caramel sauce only over her ice cream, but at the last minute I dribbled some on top of my own, too.

Before I could bring the bowls to the table, I heard a knock at the door. It was the boy on the skateboard, only now he tucked it tight to his right side in such a natural way that it might have been a third arm. In his left hand he clutched a brown paper bag, which he held out to me. “Their cukes came up,” he said, using his head to gesture at the house next door where he’d been tending the garden. “Nobody likes them at my house, so I thought I’d bring them over here.”

“Oh, that’s really nice of you,” I said. I knew that in the other room, my mother would be interested in the conversation she could hear me having, and curious about who I was having it with, but I also knew she would probably not make the effort to get up from the table to come and find out.

Once, I was sitting alone on a bench in a foreign city—Madrid, or maybe Siena—watching a mother and her daughter, who was about my own age. They’d caught my eye because I was feeling homesick. A boy about the age of the daughter and me approached the girl, and they had a lively, laughing conversation. After he left, the mother leaned close and whispered, “Who was that?” I knew exactly what it was she asked, even though I couldn’t hear it and wouldn’t have understood the language very well. I remember thinking that no one in the world would have been a fraction as interested as the girl’s mother in who the boy had been. Recognizing this, I felt pierced by my homesickness, and by a premonition of the grief I would feel someday when my mother died. It was the first time I realized that the anticipation of grief is grief itself.

I took the bag and thanked the boy, but he didn’t turn to leave. “I saw you guys walking out there,” he said, lowering his voice and nodding toward our driveway, where I’d taken my mother for her twice-a-day exercise. “She okay?”

It was only then that I saw he’d brushed the hair away from his face before knocking on our door. He might even have made an effort to smooth it. It was only then that I really bothered to focus on his face, and on the softness—a kind of fear almost, though not for himself—in eyes I had previously registered only as being dark.

“We’re not sure yet,” I told him. “But thanks for asking.”

He nodded again, and there may have been a small smile, too. He didn’t turn away then, either. “I noticed you have some crabgrass out there,” he said, pointing to my mother’s backyard, which had been left during the past few months to do whatever it wanted. “It’ll die with the first frost, but in the spring it could come back and do a number on your lawn. I could come by and treat it now so that doesn’t happen, if you wanted. It wouldn’t take too much, if you wanted me to.”

I thanked him a third time and asked for his name—Roscoe Platz—and his phone number. Returning to the table with our dessert, I described the encounter to my mother. “Enterprising young man,” she said. I asked if she could eat a little more of her sundae, but she shook her head. “Maybe he’s saving up for college. Sure, I’ll call him. I haven’t liked the looks of things out there myself—I’ve let it get out of hand.”

Roscoe Platz ended up coming to our house the next day and treating the grass, but that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that when I returned to my apartment on Sunday night, I ate dinner with my roommate and then instead of watching TV with her, I said I thought I would do some work instead. I told myself that when I sat down, I would write something just for my mother—that nobody else would have to see it—and somehow this made it easier, the words came almost before I could catch them, and I wrote an entire draft before going to bed. The title I gave it was “Where Has All the Kindness Gone,” after the folk song about flowers and soldiers, which my mother sang to me when I was little because her own mother had sung it to her. I knew the title was what my students would call cheesy, but I took a chance, and the next day I polished the story and sent it out. To my shock it ended up in a magazine I’d thought was too high to aim for, and then an editor asked if I had any other stories and she took my collection, and after it was published it won a prize, after which I applied for a tenure-track job and got it.

Where would I be without my mother? I found out too soon, before I was ready. But then, is anyone ever?


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