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Last Callby Laura Pedersen
Joe-y! Come down here and eat some breakfast,” his mother calls into the hollow tunnel of the antiquated dumbwaiter.
“What are the choices?” shouts back a high-pitched youthful voice.
“Yes or no! Get down here and eat some oatmeal before you leave.”
When Joey enters the kitchen Diana bends to kiss him while at the same time maneuvering her hand across his forehead to check for fever. “You feel warm to me.” She studies his face for unnatural coloring and a runny nose. “It could be the start of a summer cold.”
Her son is a boyish-looking eleven-year-old with wide-set expressive brown eyes and a moon-shaped face that has high ridges hidden just beneath the surface, suggesting that he’ll inherit his mother’s striking cheekbones, straight nose, and generous mouth.
“Eat some oatmeal before you leave,” Diana insists with an urgency suggesting that oatmeal has been officially designated a miracle cure for the common cold.
“I don’t want any yucky oatmeal.” Joey pushes her hand away. “Grandpa’s taking me to a baseball game. We’ll get hot dogs.”
“Based on how late he arrived home last night and the racket he made getting upstairs, we’ll be lucky if Grandpa takes out the garbage. I’m surprised he didn’t wake you up. Or worse, give you nightmares.”
Diana leans over the old-fashioned steel sink to adjust the calico curtains, diverting the glare of the formidable late June sun. The shiny copper-bottomed pots lining the far wall cast flickering circles around the room like a disco ball. From outside in the backyard drift the gentle melodies of summer—the plaintive chirping of young sparrows fidgeting in their nests, shrilling crickets, and the silky ripple of tall grass in the breeze.
The tranquillity of the morning is abruptly broken by an exuberant burst of song. A chorus of “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go” reverberates throughout the stairwell of the three-story town house in an accent containing a velvety Scots burr, and accompanied by the sound of steps being taken two at a time. On the final “go,” a dynamo of a man with an unruly mop of salt-and-pepper hair slides across the threshold to the kitchen as if tagging home base. Without missing a beat before the start of the next verse he rescues his grown daughter from slaving over the stove and skillfully waltzes her around the room, gaily accompanying them in his lilting baritone:
“I will build my love a tower, near yon pure crystal fountain, And on it I will pile, all the flowers of the mountain.”
He moves with the confident agility of an acrobat. His daughter Diana, however, wearing a stiff vinyl cooking apron and brandishing a wooden spoon above her like Lady Liberty’s torch, is a reluctant dance partner. After a turn around the island she glances at the stovetop to signal that the pot may boil over if her attention is diverted for another second, and attempts to pull away. He finally releases her with an abrupt chortle followed by a kiss on the forehead. His flashing green eyes and solid reassuring jaw are softened by a fan of laugh lines, indicating that he’s accustomed to achieving his objectives, even if only temporarily, like this morning’s dance.
“Not bad for a man supposed to be pushing up the heather!” proclaims Hayden MacBride, a square-shouldered man of medium height, medium build, and medium age, all of which are in sharp contrast to his outsized personality. He seizes two spatulas and concludes his grand entrance with a drum roll on the countertop.
Not to be left out, Joey grabs the salt and pepper shakers off the kitchen table and places the matching pewter grinders up to his face as if they’re binoculars and he’s a fan at his grandfather’s impromptu concert. This elicits a merry smile of approval from Hayden and a scowl from Diana.
“Just think how much better you’d be feeling if you hadn’t skipped your doctor’s appointment,” she reprimands her father, thereby informing him that he’d been found out when the medical office called looking for him. “Not to mention take your pills, stop drinking, and come home before midnight.”
“You’re absolutely right,” replies Hayden. “Let’s not mention it!” Having spent a lifetime embracing joy he’s not about to let impending death get in his way.
“Well, I’m making another appointment,” says Diana. “The doctor said you’re a candidate for this experimental treatment that’s just been approved for testing.”
“Oh please, Diana,” replies Hayden. “There’s no cure for this thing and you bloody well know it. They’re just wantin’ to use a bunch of desperate fools as free guinea pigs.”
Father and daughter have had this conversation a hundred times in the past two weeks and both players know their lines by heart. And they’re both well aware that neither will prevail, no matter how many times the scene is performed.
However, with Diana’s attention momentarily diverted by Hayden, Joey sneaks around the corner into the dining room and returns with a brown paper bag that he passes to his grandfather behind his mother’s back. Then Joey moves to distract her by lifting the lid off the pot and licking the spoon so his grandfather can whisk the parcel into the front hall without being observed.
“Joseph!” his mother scolds on cue. “That’s disgusting!”
Joey scrunches his face at the lumpy beige goo. “Gross.”
Hayden returns minus the brown bag and wearing a tan straw hat tilted rakishly over one eye. He peers into the pot. “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.” Also making a face he asks, “Porridge in summer?”
“It’s called oatmeal here, Dad. And it’s good for you.”
“Well it’s called porridge in Mother Scotland and ’tis favored by the very young, the very old, and the very poor.”
“Stop filling Joey’s head with stories about witches and murders.” You can hear the capital letters as she speaks. “He’s going to have NIGHTMARES.”
“It’s bloody Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”
“I don’t care if it’s Dr. Spock. And don’t curse. And don’t fill up on junk food at the game.” Diana examines the green-and-white-checked dish towel she’s been using to determine if it should go into the wash. She throws it down the chute to the basement just to be on the safe side.
“Hey Mom, how do you get a Highlander up onto the roof?” asks Joey.
“I don’t know,” Diana says distractedly.
“You tell him that the drinks are on the house!” Joey laughs like crazy and a suppressed smile causes the corners of Hayden’s vivid green eyes to crinkle.
Diana’s eyelids flap up like window shades upon hearing the punch line and she peers critically at both father and son with such foreboding that it could earn her a part in Tomb Raider. “Stop letting Joey sit in with your Scottish cronies and their bawdy jokes! And don’t let him race up and down the bleachers in the hot sun.” Diana stresses “hot sun” as if the sun is the enemy rather than the patron of all life. “And make sure you take his inhaler.”
“Do I look like my head buttons up the back, woman?” demands Hayden.
“Did you sign my Little League permission slip?” Joey asks his mother.
“We’ll discuss it when your father picks you up on Sunday. If your father picks you up on Sunday.” Her expression is one not just filled with doubt but impending doom.
Joey can’t stand the way his mother and Hayden are always saying bad things about his father. In fact, this shared hatred seems to be the only thing about which the two of them ever agree. “Mom, there’s nothing to discuss. Dad said it’s fine.”
“Joey, you have asthma!” Diana states the condition as if it’s already claimed two hundred lives while they’ve been speaking. “Dad doesn’t talk to your doctors. I think you should play golf again this summer.”
“I don’t want to play golf,” whines Joey. “I want to play baseball.” Why can’t his mother see that by treating him like a boy in a plastic bubble she’s not only depriving him of a normal childhood, but preventing him from making any friends in the new neighborhood. In fact, if it weren’t for his grandfather, he’d be spending all his free time playing video games and solitaire. Joey moans and tilts backward against the refrigerator as if he’s just been stabbed in the heart by Macbeth’s dagger. “Golf is stupid. It’s a bunch of old farts talking about the stock market. I want to play baseball.”
“Hey, watch who yer calling an old fart now. I’ve only just turned fifty-five. And mind what you say about golf. It was the Scots who invented it and I daresay I managed to close more than a few deals on the fairway.” Hayden removes a large plastic pasta fork from the rack on the counter and playfully clunks Joey over the head with it. “C’mon now, we’re off like a new bride’s nightie.”
“Dad!” Diana protests what she considers to be risqué speech for the ears of an eleven-year-old boy, and also the mishandling of her cooking utensils. Why not just drop an eyeball in the garbage can rather than go to the trouble of poking it out?
“See you later Di-Di. There’s a copy of my life insurance policy on your dresser. Please look at it and then file it someplace where you’ll be able to find it. After all, you are the principal beneficiary. And there’s some Con Edison stock for you and Joey. Your sister Linda inherits whatever’s left in my bank account, which, believe me, is a lot less.”
“Dad, puh-leeze.” She waves her right hand in the air as if fending off an airborne plague. “I’ve told you that I don’t want to discuss it.”
The older man’s lighthearted manner evaporates like an eclipsed sun, and as his voice rises in frustration the Scottish brogue becomes more pronounced. “Well, if we do’an’ discuss it then who’s goin’ to make sure I do’an’ have Jell-O with teensy marshmallows served up at the funeral and that all me clients who never paid their premiums on time aren’t sit- tin’ in the front row handin’ out their business cards? And who’s goin’ to make sure I get cremated in me pajamas so that a good suit do’an’ go to waste?”
“Do’an’ Dad me! There’s enough money in that policy for Joey to go to college. Which is about four years tuition more than your ex-husband the sculptor, or rather the sculpture, will ha’ put away when the time comes.”
Joey stuffs chocolate chip cookies into his pockets while his mother is preoccupied arguing with his grandfather. Since Diana and Joey moved from Westchester back to the family home in Brooklyn, grandfather and grandson have become adept at distracting the common enemy so as to provide each other with windows of opportunity to accomplish all the things of which she disapproves. In other words, most everything. They wriggle and scamper about like a herd of ferrets so that she can only concentrate on one at a time.
After just three short weeks of living under the same roof, it’s reached the stage where Diana insists that their combined antics are responsible for her first gray hairs and almost chronic neck tension. This is not at all what she had planned. By moving in with her father it had been Diana’s intention to nurse Hayden back to health, not bring sleep loss and stress-related illnesses upon herself, in addition to raising her son around whiskey, revelry, and bad language.
Hayden turns back to Joey. “Ready to go, slugger?”
“Aren’t you going to take your mitt, honey?” Diana, whose womb doubles as a tracking device, reminds her only child.
“Oh, yeah.” Joey stands on his toes and pecks her on the cheek. “It’s in the car.” He feels faintly guilty about lying to his mother, but on the other hand, if she knew what they were really up to she’d never again let him set foot outside the house with his grandfather.
“It seems as if the two of you have attended a baseball game every day so far this summer.” Diana punctuates her speech by scraping the glutinous oatmeal into the disposal. Then she begins scouring the sink with Comet, the way she does all surfaces, as if the regular application of cleanser can cure her father and son of their respective ailments.
“That’s the wonderful thing about havin’ a bloody awful team. It’s easy to get tickets.” Hayden is not a bad liar so much as his daughter is a good detector of lies, and thus he says this hurriedly and then beats a hasty retreat out to the driveway. In the bright summer sunlight his green-and-red-plaid i brake for highlanders bumper sticker stands out against the rusty chrome.
Hayden takes care as he maneuvers the station wagon through the tree-canopied side streets, past rows of stately old brownstones with stoops framed by wrought-iron railings, and out onto the main drag. “All I need is to have a fender bender. She won’t be able to snatch away my driver’s license fast enough.” He heads down a wide avenue flanked by brick row houses that have green-and-white-striped metal awnings and green shutters with copper eagles nailed to the front. Plastic furniture is scattered to the side of driveways like buckshot and a few large American flags hang at doorways in anticipation of the Fourth of July.
Hayden drives past St. Benedict’s Church and then turns onto the expressway and toward the wealthier neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, with its nineteenth-century town houses and streets lined with gingko trees. Flatbed trucks rumble past as they haul their loads of scrap metal to the East River junkyards. He makes his way around bright orange cones, big black barrels of gravel, and construction workers waving checkered flags in order to slow drivers down. “Brooklyn will be a great city if they ever finish it,” jokes Hayden.
“It’s amazing that Mom actually believes we go to a baseball game every day,” says Joey. He makes no secret of the joy he gets from putting one over on his perpetually vigilant mother.
“She do’an’ follow sports. Diana will never understand payin’ good money to watch people purposely injure themselves.”
“How many funerals are we gonna hit today?” asks Joey. Most of the time he enjoys them, but after three in a row it can become depressing, all those people crying and blowing their noses and the women with their makeup all messed up, looking as if they’re preparing to head out trick-or-treating.
“I found three that look promising. The newspaper is right in the backseat. Check the death notices. I reckon there’s a fine chance of procurin’ some roast beef and shrimp scampi for lunch today.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright© 2003 by Laura Pedersen
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