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Vulture in the Nest

by Jackie Manthorne, Copyright 1997


I don't remember why Johnny said it the first time, but it was quite a joke. Actually, it was always a joke; it must have been, because every time he said it, he laughed. As a matter of fact, we all laughed, as if laughing about something like that had no more importance than rhyming off the multiplication tables in grade school, in the old days, back before they invented machines to do all the work for you.

I should be able to remember why he said it. Although it doesn't really matter, since it was just a joke. But it was right after dinner and we were still sitting around the dining room table, greasy dishes and empty bowls littering the stained linen tablecloth, leaving us nowhere to put our elbows. So we were all leaning back in our chairs, talking, the men smoking and finishing the wine. You know how it is: our stomachs were full of rich food and our brains were lazy, so we didn't have much to say, and what there was of it wasn't very important.

"If you run on like that, Ma, we'll just have to put you away," Johnny said.

Well, of course I laughed, and so did everybody else. We expected to laugh, since it was Johnny speaking. He's my youngest, and he makes jokes even when he's serious. That's always been his way of saying things. Anyway, I guess it was pretty funny at the time. Although I did wonder that he thought I was running on, since I had hardly got a word in edgewise all day, what with my three sons and three daughters and all their children visiting for Thanksgiving dinner, the wine in them talking a mile a minute. The adults, I mean. My grandchildren were already downstairs watching tv. But later that night, after I was in bed and Johnny, the only unmarried one, was down in the basement apartment he and his brothers finished a couple of years ago, I wondered where he wanted to put me. Just for a minute, though; see, I was too tired from cooking to bother much. And anyway, it was only a joke.

I remember the second time he said it because we were in the cemetery, just him and me, visiting my late husband's grave. It was a lovely autumn afternoon, crisp with sunshine as only Ontario fall days can be, and the crimson leaves were clinging to the trees like lovers after a long separation. Johnny was grumbling and looking at his watch; my late husband always said that Johnny was born without patience. He's always in a hurry, especially when he's uncomfortable, and graveyards do that to him. He's still young enough to imagine that he can ignore what's waiting for him at the end of the road, and those long rows of tombstones get on his nerves. So he smoked and paced and coughed to make me get on with it. I said a few hurried prayers and crossed myself and tried to remember what my late husband's face looked like, but it had been so long. As we got back into Johnny's car, I told him that I couldn't recall his father's smile, or the exact colour of his eyes, and that was when he said, "You sure are losing it, Ma. I guess we really are going to have to put you away."

Why is it that you can never think of the right thing to say when somebody hits you with a bolt of lightning? Something funny, snappy, or even mean, something that lets them know you can give as good as you get? Johnny was laughing, but it was the wrong kind of laugh. Not evil, exactly -- none of my kids grew up that crooked --but wrong. He was uncomfortable. But as he squealed his tires on the way out of the graveyard, I laughed too, which sounded even worse. Two people laughing about something they know is wrong doesn't make it right.

It settled on me like a pall, this putting away. Although it was pure nonsense, just something Johnny had got in the habit of saying, like when he was two-and-a-half years old and got fixated on the word "spinach." Every time you asked him what he wanted to eat, he would say "spin-ach" in this squeaky little voice. Well, he hated spinach. He would spoon it into his mouth, give you a devilish grin and then spit it out over the edge of his highchair, but who knows what gets into a kid's mind?

Maybe he just liked the sound of the word. Maybe he liked the pattern it made when it splattered all over the linoleum. Or maybe it was his idea of a joke, always asking for something he didn't like, waiting for us to figure it out. The next time it happened we were watching football on tv, the old sofas in the rec room sagging under the weight of my sons and sons-in-law. Their wives were upstairs in the kitchen gossiping about their kids, who were out in the back yard kicking the leaves around and getting their feet wet in the grass Johnny should have mowed last week but didn't. I guess I should have stayed up there with them, but they bore me to tears with their bickering and bragging. Who has the newest car with the most gadgets. Whose house cost the most to buy. Which one has the most rooms. Who did the most expensive renovations. Whose children got the highest grades. Who spent the most money on clothes. Who paid the most taxes. They must practice their posturing in front of a mirror before they come over here, that's all I can say.

So I stayed down with the men and watched them empty beer bottle after beer bottle. That's all football has ever been in this house, an excuse for getting drunk. Their father was like that too, God rest his soul, so they come by it naturally. Not that that's any excuse. Anyway, they decided to teach me the rules, and soon they were off and running, explaining in their superior voices about first downs, field goals, touchbacks, penalties, the difference between Canadian and American football. As if it mattered. As if I needed to clutter my mind with useless stuff like that.

Well, I was quickly lost, which was no surprise to me. First of all, they were all talking at once, disagreeing with each other and arguing the finer points. And then too, with all those empty beer bottles lined up like a row of soldiers on the coffee table, none of what they were saying made much sense. I would be watching a play on tv while they were still telling me about the one before it. So I said, "Hey, don't get so excited. I don't need to know all those rules to enjoy watching the game with you."

My eldest daughter's husband Chuck snickered and they all rolled their eyes.

"My God, Ma, this is football!" Johnny exclaimed.

The others nodded.

Football. Hockey. Baseball. Basketball. Golf. Curling. Since I had never been a sports fan, what difference did it make to me? Why couldn't I just sit and enjoy their company? Wasn't that enough?

But I smiled and nodded too. What else was I to do, faced with an attitude like that?

"Ma, Ma," Johnny said with a shake of his head. "I really do believe we're going to have to put you away."

This time there was no laughter, and all of a sudden none of them would meet my eyes.

I went upstairs.

Was something wrong with my head? Did I ramble or forget things or talk nonsense? Was I too old?

"Grandma, what's for dinner?"

Too old for what?

"Grandma, I said what's for dinner?"

I brushed by my eight-year-old grandson and went into my bedroom.

"What's wrong with Grandma?" he whined.

Grandma is old, I thought, looking at myself in the mirror over my dresser. Daughters and daughters-in-law slid into my bedroom like a wave scoots up the beach at high tide.

"What's wrong, Ma?"

"Nothing, nothing."

"What's for dinner, then?" my grandson said yet again, persistent like his father was at that age.

"Shush," his mother scolded, slapping him from the room.

The wave encircled me. I felt like I was drowning in concern.

"Are you sick?"

"Did you remember to take your pills this morning?"

"Are you having a heart attack?"

"My God! A heart attack! Do you think...?"

I wanted to shut their flapping mouths, to stick my fingers in their flashing eyes. Vultures they were, excited by the most extreme possibilities. My death would be like an exclamation point in their drab, uneventful lives. Cooking. Baking. Cleaning. People to call. Laying-out clothing to choose. Funeral arrangements to make. An estate to settle. Who would get the house? Johnny?

"I am not having a heart attack," I said sternly.

They had the sense not to look disappointed.

"Perhaps you should rest," suggested the eldest.

"Yes, rest," chimed the others.

No, not vultures. Pigeons, stepping on each other's toes in their rush to pick up the droppings. Or lemmings, maybe, with not a thought in their empty little heads. Oh, I needed a rest, all right, but from them.

"Ask your father what time the game will be over," I said calmly to my grandson, who had silently wiggled his way back into my bedroom like a puppy up to no good. "Dinner will be served then."

The wave receded. I was alone.

When had my children become my enemies? When had my son decided that I had outlived my usefulness? And what on earth was he thinking about? Who would cook his meals? Do his laundry? Give him a place to stay for free? I ran a brush through my thinning hair and put the clips back in.

"Grandma?"

"What?"

"Dad said the game would be over soon."

"Fine."

"Grandma?"

"What?"

"I'm hungry."

"Go down and sit with your Dad," I replied.

Well. There was only one thing to do: get dinner on the table. I marched from my room into the kitchen. Daughters and daughters-in-law scurried, setting out the good china and the silver flatware, warming the roast in the oven and the vegetables in the microwave the family gave me last Christmas. To make it easier on you, they explained. To cut down on the housework you have to do, they said the Christmas before that, when a Sears dishwasher was manhandled through the back door by two of my sons and installed after New Year's. I should have noticed the writing on the wall then; yes, I should have seen it coming long before Johnny started joking about putting me away.

"Pass the gravy," mumbled one of my sons, the one who had hardening of the arteries already, and him barely fifty. I never could get Bill to cut the fat from the meat; he even gobbled the gristle like some starving child in a refugee camp.

"Nice roast, Ma," said one of my daughters, the one who spends her life worrying. Everything has to go well, everybody has to be nice, everybody has to behave. Clara frets when her children get bad marks or talk back to her. She already has bleeding ulcers, so Heaven help her when her kids get older and fool around with drugs and sex, like all kids do these days.

"I was thinking . . ." I began, pouring a little more wine in my glass, ignoring the daughter-in-law who is so upstanding, such a pillar of the church, that she can manage to overlook the fact that her husband Chuck drinks like a fish.

"What, Ma?" Johnny said impatiently. He hates it when I don't finish my sentences.

"I was thinking that I'd like to make some changes around here," I said.

"Paint it up a little, you mean?" Bill said, his mouth full of potatoes.

"It could use it," Clara said politely, looking around as if she had never seen the place before, as if she hadn't grown up here and didn't already know by heart every dent and scratch she and her brothers and sisters had made in the paint, sometimes even right down into the plaster, like they had wanted to leave their mark on the house just like they did on my life.

"No, I thought I might bring in a little extra money by renting out the basement apartment," I replied.

They were speechless.

"But Johnny's living there," one of my daughters finally said.

"Oh, Johnny," I said, making it sound as if he had no more importance than a pesky fly buzzing around the inside of the screen on a hot summer night, one you knew you'd eventually swat once it wore its dumb self down trying to get back out. "Well, maybe it's time for Johnny to be on his own a little. It would probably be good for him to cut the apron strings, so to speak."

Well, Johnny didn't like that. Youngest or not, he didn't appreciate being called a Mamma's boy, not him with his flashy clothes and slicked back hair, always bringing home women who reminded me of over-ripe tomatoes.

"I thought I'd get me a couple of students now that the technical college is open," I said, the idea growing on me even though I had no idea where it came from to begin with.

"Students!" Bill exclaimed. "You're just asking for trouble!"

"Think of the loud parties!"

"And girls in the rooms!"

"And liquor in the house -"

I stopped myself from waving the wine bottle in her face, knowing it w