I want to interrupt the narrative for just a minute to talk about Mom.
I still think about her to this very day. I can see the two of us walking downtown that Christmas before she died. All the stores along Main Street were strung up with red and blue and white lights. My hands were stuffed in the pockets of my camel’s hair coat. I could see my breath in the cold night air.
The annual Christmas tree lighting was about to take place in the town center. Mrs. Morrison, my extremely gaunt-looking music teacher at school, was directing the Greenfield Community Chorus that year. Mom and I got these little paper cups of hot chocolate and then went over to watch the ceremony.
Big John is not present in a lot of these memories I have of Mom; it is only me and her. In my memories, I have Mom all to myself.
The Christmas tree lit up. The crowd clapped and cheered.
Mom put her arm around me and pulled me close to her. “It’s beautiful isn’t, Davey?”
I nodded. I always liked to watch the Christmas tree lighting with her. It was one of our favorite traditions.
We soon started back home. A light snow had begun to fall. We stopped for a moment on the sparkling sidewalk and looked at the display window of Somerset’s Department Store. An electric train was traveling through an Alpine village. I put my hand on the chilly glass.
I saw Mom’s reflection in the window. She was tying her pink scarf around her neck. Her white trench-coat made her look like a pale ghost. “When I was a little girl, I always wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas in Switzerland.”
She didn’t elaborate any further on the fantasy. We left Somerset’s behind. At the crosswalk Mom began to have a coughing fit. It was a painful cough from deep inside her chest. I was scared for a minute. Her face had gone the alarming shade of a plum.
“I’m alright,” she said after her coughing had subsided. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue from her purse.
I wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure?”
She ruffled my hair. “I promise, buddy. Things are fine.”
This wasn’t true. The winter got colder and Mom’s terrible cough only got increasingly worse. She began to slow down a lot over the next couple of months. It was hard to watch. I would be helping her set the table for dinner and she would suddenly lean on a chair, hair hanging lose and her face dripping in sweat. Eventually she stopped cooking altogether; it became too much for her. More and more she would stay in bed most days. She had stopped eating. The doctor was called. He told us that her heat was weak, her body was failing. Everything that happened after that passed in a confused, dreamlike haze. People started coming to the house to visit. They bought cards and flowers. At night, sometime long after midnight, I would sneak past Big John’s dark form on the couch, and go into their bedroom. I stared down at Mom and watched her sleep. I thought that if I kept checking on her then nothing bad would really ever happen. I was stupid for even thinking that would work. Mom died anyway. I can still see myself standing alone in the empty bedroom after she was taken away from me. The bed was empty. She was gone and she was never coming back. I touched her pillow lightly and looked at a vase of flowers on the bedside table. The roses had wilted.
Christine Wendell opens the door to her son’s bedroom a few minutes past eight-thirty on Saturday morning.
Sam is slowly stirring in his bed. The blankets are in a heap on the floor. She is surprised to find her son in such a condition. Blood shot eyes. Hair disheveled from sleep or lack of it. Pale face. There is a bitter smell of alcohol in this closed-up room. He looks up at her like a sad dog.
“I guess it was a long night,” she says. “I waited up for you. What time do you get in?”
Sam makes an unintelligible grunting noise and rolls over to face the wall.
He’s hung over. That’s pretty obvious. Once upon a time, I used to be a teenager. Christine is not sure how to handle this situation. Does she freak out, yell at him while he makes a mad dash for the shower? Maybe she could linger for a minute in this bedroom, feigning disappointment, and eventually he would get up out of a sense of guilt. It looks like it’s going to be a day of popping Tylenol and frequent trips to the toilet to puke. Poor kid. The last thing on his mind right now is probably breakfast.
It is actually difficult for Christine to feel any true anger towards her son this morning. He had been out last night. He had been out with his friends. She only needs to close her eyes for a second to remember Sam’s solitary life back in their cramped Boston apartment. No kids ever came over. He spent those long school vacations and weekend hours always alone in his small bedroom.
Christine decides to just let Sam sleep today. He’ll get up on his own. She smiles and closes the door softly behind her.
Jack picks Nadine up in his car and they drive over to Aubrey’s house across town to make the deal.
They always deliver their shit together. It was something that everyone noticed. All the kids at school (even a surprising number of pussy freshman) knew about Jack and Nadine. The stuff they dealt varied – pot, ludes, uppers and downers, the usual medicine cabinet candy, even coke occasionally if Jack could score some – and they had a steady stream of customers coming and going all the time. One of their regulars over these last couple of weeks is a girl named Aubrey Chamberlain, a fellow junior in Jack’s homeroom. She had texted Nadine earlier this morning and badly needed a little pep.