was a junior at the University of Maine when Mrs. McCurdy called
about ma. My father died when I was too young to remember him and
I was an only child, so it was just Alan and Jean Parker against
the world. Mrs. McCurdy, who lived just up the road, called at the
apartment I shared with three other guys. She had gotten the number
off the magnetic minder-board ma kept on her fridge.
"'Twas a stroke," she said in that
long and drawling Yankee accent of hers. "Happened at the restaurant.
But don't you go flyin off all half-cocked. Doctor says it wa'ant
too bad. She's awake and she's talkin."
"Yeah, but is she making sense?" I
asked. I was trying to sound calm, even amused, but my heart was
beating fast and the living room suddenly felt too warm. I had the
apartment all to myself; it was Wednesday, and both my roomies had
classes all day.
"Oh, ayuh. First thing she said was
for me to call you but not to scare you. That's pretty sensible,
wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah." But of course I was scared.
When someone calls and tells you your mother's been taken from work
to the hospital in an ambulance, how else are you supposed to feel?
"She said for you to stay right there
and mind your schoolin until the weekend. She said you could come
then, if you didn't have too much studyin t'do."
Sure, I thought. Fat chance. I'd just
stay here in this ratty, beer-smelling apartment while my mother
lay in a hospital bed a hundred miles south, maybe dying.
"She's still a young woman, your ma,"
Mrs. McCurdy said. "It's just that she's let herself get awful heavy
these last few years, and she's got the hypertension. Plus the cigarettes.
She's goin to have to give up the smokes."
I doubted if she would, though, stroke
or no stroke, and about that I was right--my mother loved her smokes.
I thanked Mrs. McCurdy for calling.
"First thing I did when I got home,"
she said. "So when are you coming, Alan? Sad'dy?" There was a sly
note in her voice that suggested she knew better.
I looked out the window at a perfect
afternoon in October: bright blue New England sky over trees that
were shaking down their yellow leaves onto Mill Street. Then I glanced
at my watch. Twenty past three. I'd just been on my way out to my
four o'clock philosophy seminar when the phone rang.
"You kidding?" I asked. "I'll be there
Her laughter was dry and a little
cracked around the edges--Mrs. McCurdy was a great one to talk about
giving up the cigarettes, her and her Winstons. "Good boy! You'll
go straight to the hospital, won't you, then drive out to the house?"
"I guess so, yeah," I said. I saw
no sense in telling Mrs. McCurdy that there was something wrong
with the transmission of my old car, and it wasn't going anywhere
but the driveway for the foreseeable future. I'd hitchhike down
to Lewiston, then out to our little house in Harlow if it wasn't
too late. If it was, I'd snooze in one of the hospital lounges.
It wouldn't be the first time I'd ridden my thumb home from school.
Or slept sitting up with my head leaning against a Coke machine,
for that matter.
"I'll make sure the key's under the
red wheelbarrow," she said. "You know where I mean, don't you?"
"Sure." My mother kept an old red
wheelbarrow by the door to the back shed; in the summer it foamed
with flowers. Thinking of it for some reason brought Mrs. McCurdy's
news home to me as a true fact: my mother was in the hospital, the
little house in Harlow where I'd grown up was going to be dark tonight--there
was no one there to turn on the lights after the sun went down.
Mrs. McCurdy could say she was young, but when you're just twenty-one
yourself, forty-eight seems ancient.
"Be careful, Alan. Don't speed."
My speed, of course, would be up to whoever
I hooked a ride with, and I personally hoped that whoever it was
would go like hell. As far as I was concerned, I couldn't get to
Central Maine Medical Center fast enough. Still, there was no sense
worrying Mrs. McCurdy.
"I won't. Thanks."
"Welcome," she said. "Your ma's going to
be just fine. And won't she be some happy to see you."
I hung up, then scribbled a note saying
what had happened and where I was going. I asked Hector Passmore,
the more responsible of my roommates, to call my adviser and ask
him to tell my instructors what was up so I wouldn't get whacked
for cutting--two or three of my teachers were real bears about that.
Then I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack, added my dog-eared
copy of Introduction to Philosophy, and headed out. I dropped
the course the following week, although I had been doing quite well
in it. The way I looked at the world changed that night, changed
quite a lot, and nothing in my philosophy textbook seemed to fit
the changes. I came to understand that there are things underneath,
you see-underneath-and no book can explain what they are.
I think that sometimes it's best to just forget those things are
there. If you can, that is.
a hundred and twenty miles from the University of Maine in Orono