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Charly Palmer - In His Solitude
In His Solitude
Charly Palmer

Hello? Dr. Laura?

By Anna Tuttle Villegas

Hello? Dr. Laura?

Yes.

Lorraine.

No, not Lorrie. Never that. You, too? Oh, I'm sure.

Thank you. Thank you for taking my call, Dr. Laura.

I've just recently started listening. I didn't know-what's that?

No, my radio is not turned on. Not now, I wouldn't when I was calling. It's-

My dilemma? Oh, Dr. Laura, I didn't know where else to turn. I don't know anybody else to ask. My boy, Dr. Laura, my beautiful boy, why he-

My question for you?

Just one question. No, no. I understand you don't have a lot of time. I just wanted to tell you about my son. Toby is--was--his name, Dr. Laura.

My question. I can't ask you my question without remembering Toby first. I can't make a question in a single sentence that doesn't tell Toby's story to you. I need to say it the right way, with the right words. I thought you'd understand. I've heard you say to callers that they aren't answering the question you asked, or that they're changing their stories on you. So I guessed you have some respect for, well, allegiance to representing the truth of things, the way things are in families, how, Dr. Laura, how there are a hundred truths possible in one small thing that happens--your boy picks up a car-crushed wren when he's four and he sees you can't make it better for him, or the way you let him eat oranges all day if he wants because you think, well, whose body is it that knows how much Vitamin C it needs? Which is what makes it so hard to find one single question to ask. Which parts of the story to leave out in order to make the one question. I don't know.

My Toby. Yes? My only child. A single boy, like yours. Yes, I was married to his-

Only the one marriage, only the one boy. It didn't last long. Your three A's? Just one out of three, count myself lucky. A for addiction. A for alcoholism. Very early on. Toby was just two, and then my marriage was over. Then we were just two and were until--

Twenty-four. When he died. He's dead, Dr. Laura. Would you let me tell my story first? Thank you. Thank you for that.

At the beginning? At the beginning.

I loved my boy before he was born. No, not planned . . . but you know what, Dr. Laura? I knew the morning he was conceived. I knew it, and--you'd understand this, I think--I knew him. I knew my baby was a boy. I knew he'd come straight out of my womb where he'd been such a good boy, an easy pregnancy, wearing two inches of straight black hair already slicked back from his forehead the way it would be, the way he'd comb it when, the way they did it for the--when he was, you know, grown.

Old Dr. Cross--I stayed with his practice from faithfulness, even though he hadn't set up a birthing room with ducky wallpaper at the hospital the way some of the other ob-gyns here in town did--Dr. Cross put Toby on my breast in the plain delivery room where I lay on the white-sheeted table with my feet up in stirrups, and I recognized my boy. I knew him. (You don't think that did it, do you? That I didn't birth my son to surround-sound Vivaldi on Laura Ashley sheets? I never thought of it before, but could that be why, the question I'm supposed to ask? Can you harm a child's growing by saying no thanks, I don't need to have the ambient add-ons; I just want to have my baby, no frills?)

My son was there, born and perfect and not part of me but yet even more a part of me, even without the umbilical. I know you understand this point. I've heard you say to your listeners, you know, the signature line about being your kid's mom. I've heard it one hundred times, and every repeat I think: that's what I am. I am my kid's mom. Except he's dead now. I am still his mom; I will never stop being his mom. Could you remind me of that, when I get to my question, please? That when your child dies, it doesn't make you any less his mother? Don't let me forget. I think that may be part of my dilemma, Dr. Laura. I am still my kid's mom. Just as much as you are yours. Just as much as anybody ever was a mother.

I told my Toby all his life that those first months, that first year, were the happiest days in my life. Everything I needed was in my arms: my son against my breast. Was I wrong to look back with such fondness on those days? When he couldn't even talk--do you think he heard me say that I loved him more then, before--

Oh, yes, I nursed. Fifteen months. Until he weaned himself. It broke my heart, and not for La Leche's sake. For mine.

Was I wrong to tell my boy about that small, perfect world we made? I'd know he was about to waken before his eyes opened. My milk would come down and wet my nightgown, and I'd lean over to the bassinet and see Toby's eyes open, looking right at me. Was I wrong to tell him these stories about us, how all right everything was in those early days? How he'd flex his little man's fist and rub my face with it when he nursed? How he'd fall asleep at my breast and I couldn't budge for an hour, awed by the curve of his cheek, the way his dark hair tapered to fuzz along his hairline? The sweetness of his breath, his breath. . . .

I'm sorry, Dr. Laura. I'm all right. Still here. Just for a moment, for a moment I thought maybe that if I'd nursed him longer, or not so long, maybe?

Oh, yes. I see.

Early walker. Eleven months. Early talker. Before he was two. I have it somewhere here, on the baby calendar; the first word he spoke was dog. I recorded every day of his first year. The calendar ran out. I should have bought another and labeled it "baby's second year." And third and fourth. Maybe if I had, maybe if I hadn't made it seem like that first year was any better or more memorable than the ones which came later, maybe he wouldn't have--maybe I wouldn't have had to call you now with my dilemma, as you like to say.

I used to wear him against my chest in a Gerry cuddler. Do you remember those? Blue corduroy with thick straps and kind of a headboard to keep the baby's head from flopping? When I was vacuuming or mowing, or doing up the dishes at night, grateful my husband hadn't been home for dinner, I'd wear my Toby against my chest. You must have thought I was a Hoover, I'd tell him later, because of all that time you spent cleaning and sweeping and picking up with me.

Ma, Toby would say back, in a tone so I know now it wasn't that, wasn't the overttime business I'd had to do after my other work, when I'd pick him up from my sister's and head straight home. About that, I don't have a question for you.

I'd call him my little patapoose--our word--yes, we made words up. No, I'd use adult language, of course, but in between we'd make these words in just our language. A mother does that with her child, doesn't she, make up a dialect to describe the world that holds just what the two of them need. Love language that's more true than any other because it's invented by you in the bliss of that--

Yes? I had to work, I did. No income from him from Toby's second birthday. I could work, I mean, I wasn't helpless. I had skills, so I got a good job. But do you see that you either get a job or end up on AFDC? It's not a moral choice that I can see; it's a mother doing what she's got to do. The decision I made wasn't even a decision in the sense you mean. You put your head down and think: I need to feed and clothe and house my child. He needs medical insurance. He's going to need a bicycle, a bookshelf, little league uniforms, a calculus tutor. When he needs these and you can find a way to supply them, it doesn't even occur to you to choose to say no, we can't afford that, honey. You work and then you spend every spare moment with your boy.

Do you really think that's part of it? Oh, Dr. Laura, don't tell me that, please. Every minute I wasn't working I was with my child. I was the morning carpool driver and the 4-H leader and the pizza mom for the yearbook. Did he get the message that I didn't love him enough when I went to work every morning after I'd made his lunch? I don't think so. He told me once near the end--not that I knew it was going to be the end, but now I do see it so, something burning down in him, or burning up (isn't that odd: down and up meaning the same here, another case of those truths that multiply with reflection)--that the stay-at-home moms weren't all they are cracked up to be. One of them, the spandex lady, spent all her time at the fitness center. It was her house where they had the Old Milwaukee parties after school his junior year. Another one had five kids, so I ask you: did she give each one of hers what I gave Toby? How could she, divided up into fifths that way?

His girlfriend, that quiet girl who gave me the journal after, she used to sit in our living room and tip her head back and say, Lorraine, I love your house. I love the stillness of your house.

It's a two-person house, honey, I told her one time, something in her voice having raised my sympathy. Fewer people, less racket.

No, it's something different than just quiet. It's serene.

She said it, Dr. Laura, like she'd found the word for Toby and me. When I think of that, my question for you gets all muddled. How, in our house where his tabby slept in a laundry basket above the washer and Corelli was the homework soundtrack and we grew our own tomatoes in redwood boxes on the deck, how could Toby have found what seemed to grow inside him like an extra rib, pressing his lungs flat instead of protecting them?

Toby had all of me when I wasn't working, at the least, so when you say I should have found a way, well, Dr. Laura, I just don't see how.

I used to lift up my son every day. Of course you do when they're babies and then toddlers, fitting them into the crook of your hipbone so they fit you as certain as a puzzle piece. But even later, into middle school.

Tobe, I'd say. Let me pick you up.

Why, Ma?

Because if I pick you up every day, there will never be a day when I can't pick you up again. You won't get too heavy for me overnight, will you? Come here.

I honestly believed that, Dr. Laura, and I am a fairly well-read woman. I thought that my muscles wouldn't realize the grams he'd gain as he grew (taller than I! To six foot two!). That something happening so gradually wouldn't catch me by surprise if, every morning, after Cheerios and cinnamon toast, I'd lift my boy up. Maybe it was wrong? Like telling him not to change?

You don't think so?

You know when I couldn't lift him any longer? When he stopped letting me. I swear if he'd let me, I could have picked up my grown son like a ballerina. But he stopped, some time in high school, the same time he stopped eating breakfast, and then I couldn't when I did try. I let him loose, Dr. Laura, and I will always blame myself for that. That I didn't carry my boy better, daily, so we would have grown together, my muscles matching his pounds.

Am I? If I am, how can you fault me for feeling so?

Did I give him everything he wanted?

I'm not sure I understand the question.

We didn't have a television. Not until his junior year, at least. Is this what you mean? When they're little and they see the commercials and ask for the silly trinket toys corresponding to the even sillier cartoons? He didn't see those, so he didn't ask. What did I give him, what did I give him. . . .

We had an art cupboard, a wooden cupboard, child's height, that we filled with construction paper and glue sticks, crayons and cardboard, a Mason jar filled with buttons, about six pairs of those useless little rubber-handled children's scissors which always fray the paper. I can touch the cupboard now; it's still filled with Toby's art stuff. Magic markers in all different shades, Popsicle sticks, leftover theme lunchboxes filled with rocks and once--where did it go?--a wooden Maduro cigar box for Toby's collection of miniature pinecones and acorns and the oddest little metal pieces he'd collect in the pockets of his pants. Glass shards worn to smoothness by the ocean, a whole jelly jar full of his jewels we'd found on the coast north of Santa Cruz.

We had a clay board. Yes? That's what we called it: I think it was the Formica cut-out from a kitchen sink in one of his uncle's remodels. Toby didn't have to pull his little clay people apart to make new ones because they all lived on the clay board. It stayed on the coffee table in the living room for six months once, the shoebox of new clay sticks beside it. Sometimes we'd both sit down without talking, cross-legged in front of the board, and make new creatures. If you press their little feet on Formica, they will stand up all by themselves. A whole neighborhood lived there, the strangest forms. My horse with the loopy Roman nose, a yellow snake with pearl eyes and a long green tongue, floppy jalopies. That was quality time, wasn't it, Dr. Laura? When you sit with your boy and catch his attentive eye, your fingers working the clay into softness?

Mama, make me a giraffe.

Mama, will you make the legs?

Mama, I'm thirsty.

When together you've fit the green Gumby-figure into the seat of his purple car, he climbs into your lap and watches your fingers, your long fingers rolling the brown clay back and forth, back and forth until it will form into anything he asks for. Then you pick up your boy, your son whose weight is so welcome in your arms, and you take him in to your bedroom for a nap, where you recite to him James Whitcomb Riley poems about little boys and their outturned pockets as you stroke his dark hair and watch his shut-eyed peace relax the calf muscles of his legs, his long legs outgrowing their baby fat. You fall asleep, too, don't you, with his head curled into the crook of your elbow, and it's like you are a single body once more, except that his breaths come shorter than yours, and you dream different dreams.

Did I give him every thing he wanted? Certainly not, not in the sense you mean.

I said no to the Gameboy. No videos, ever. Books, Tobe, I'd tell him. Let's go get books. Get your library pack.

I said no to the second dog. Roller is getting old, and he needs us to love just him. No puppy, not now.

I said no to the four-wheeler. Flat out no. Maybe I said no way, I don't remember exactly.

I said yes to the terrarium with Jackson's chameleons, yes to the Walkman, yes to the darkroom set up in the bathroom, eventually yes to the junker Chevy Impala he bought from his uncle, to the engine which he rebuilt in the school's auto shop, just enough to get it road-worthy.

Did I say yes and no to the wrong requests, Dr. Laura? Did I not follow some higher psychic health insurance standard in granting my boy such? Should I have said yes to the puppy and no to the Chevy? Should I have bought him a Jeep? I can't tell; can you help me here? Did I make things come too easy or too hard? Was I overbearingly eccentric in the morality of my decision-making? Would the puppy have made a difference? Waiting for an old dog to die, is that what he heard me to say to him? When he asked me to make the legs for the clay hippopotamus, was I supposed to say hey, kiddo, do it yourself: you can?

Oh, household rules? You didn't mean material things. I see.

You know what Toby told me, not long before he--he told me it would have been futile for me to have forbidden him his freedom to break the rules. We were driving home from his uncle's, one holiday or another, and I was thinking out loud, saying that I ought to have kept more vigilant watch over him during high school. In high school you don't know what they're doing because they don't tell you or--worse--they tell those white lies you allow yourself to believe because they seem to be, in the larger landscape of your good, whole lives, such small trespasses, such minor infractions.

Should I have interrogated my boy during those years?

When I knew damn well the red-eyed look he wore home every time he'd spent time with Dirkie Shibina was from smoking dope in Dirkie's garage? He stopped, Dr. Laura, after eight weeks. He stopped it all by himself. Was I supposed to stop it for him?

When I realized he was sleeping with that quiet girlfriend--I can't for the life of me remember her name, the girl who gave me the journal--should I have waved the condoms in front of his face and said, you're under lock and key now, my fine fellow? Well, I didn't, Dr. Laura. That was his business, my son becoming a man, and not my place to interfere.

What should I have said: you can't go out with her? I liked that girl, her quietness and devotion to Toby, their puppy-love fondness for each other that softened the corners of any room they were in. He was good for her, Dr. Laura. He was good for everyone around him.

When I found out he'd cut school for two days, in spring of his senior year, to go down to the city with the guys from his baseball team, I did yell and accuse and threaten, Dr. Laura. (For tattoos. They all came back with tattoos.) He'd made up a cover story, and I screeched at him for his lie about the guys watching movies at the McCarty's and then sleeping over. Not the cutting, not the tattooing--the lying. So bold, so, somehow, disrespectful to me. Because I wouldn't lie to him. I yelled at my Toby for that, Dr. Laura. Now I am ashamed, it was so, so small. I could have left it.

You don't agree.

I said to him, spacing my words to the thunk-thunk-thunk of the tires slapping on the uneven patchy asphalt of the Oakland freeway, I said, Toby, I should have paid more attention. Called on you more. Been more watchful.

Ma, he said, calm, parental. Ma, if you'd told me I couldn't do something, you know I just would have done it without telling you. Everybody did.

Does everybody's child do what Toby did, Dr. Laura?

Do you know that in eighty percent of families, eighty percent of families in which a child is lost, the family doesn't make it? The families fall apart, Dr. Laura. The husbands take up fly fishing so they can be someplace where silence is required; the wives stop highlighting their hair and start watching General Hospital, where the handsome doctors cure everybody. I am just a one-woman family, but I am my kid's mom. I feel I am falling apart, Dr. Laura. My feet won't stick to the ground, my arms are too long yet too light, my eyes don't close when I try to sleep.

I apologize.

I understand the rule: no feelings.

Except, Dr. Laura, when there's nothing to me but these feelings, how can I do the right thing any more? When it's possible that I was doing the wrong thing for years and years, and that's why Toby finally--

No, I wasn't lackadaisical. I was . . . flexible is a better word for what I was. Trying to emphasize the important things.

I worried for him, Dr. Laura.

Not about, for. Instead of. In place of.

Yes, I hear that you listen to particular words. You should. In your line of work. Yes.

I worried for him so he wouldn't have to. I wanted my boy to know it was all right with me that he explored the world; I didn't want him to be afraid the way I had been as a child. So I had the wariness. He must have seen how I built a safety zone surrounding him, how with my own guard for his safety I warded off the dangers I could. When I had the means to protect him with what I knew, or thought I knew.

An example?

Oh, you believe I might have feared excessively? Neurotically?

Examples.

Tobe, honey, you don't want to take four Tylenol, no matter how badly your head hurts. Take two aspirin in another hour.

Brain damage would be better, Toby would mumble, lifting the cold washcloth from his flushed face.

Safe home, I'd tell him, as he swung open the car door to go back to school.

Ma, Toby would answer. I always do. You know I do.

Use the buddy system, I'd remind him when he headed up to the mountains with backpacks stuffed with freeze-dried food to hike and swim with his roommate. Stay close to Aaron.

He will, Lorraine, Aaron would say, winking at me. I'll stay close to him.

Was this unnatural, unhealthy? To use cautionary words like Saint Christopher medals? You're thinking that I made him preoccupied with the potential for--

Children need boundaries. Yes, I agree with that. And language can build a white picket fence. Or a hogwire coop.

We talked easily. I'd say always. We kept the lines open. There were six months in high school when he turned stiff-faced and sullen, when I backed off from entering his room to pick up dirty clothes. If he couldn't get them to the hamper, I said--yes, I was angry--I couldn't get them in the washer. He didn't talk much then. To anybody. But everybody told me, Dr. Laura, everybody I knew who'd ever had a teenager, they all said it would pass, and it did.

When?

When Roller died.

Lying on the rug in front of the kitchen sink, Roller died one morning.

Old age. Retrievers don't live as long as little dogs.

Yes, we knew he was fading. We'd talked about it-

Toby. Toby found him. He came home from high school and found Roller. When I got home from work, he'd almost finished the hole in the violet bed, the cool green where Roller used to sleep in the summer heat.

Only it was February, not a good time to be burying a dog. To lift your old dog's body, swaddled now in the gray comforter you slept under last night, and set it into the wet winter loam.

Oh, Tobe. I touched my son's shoulder after we'd spaded over the mound. The violets we didn't try to replant. They made a snarled mat of white roots and torn leaves over Roller's body.

Is it that he didn't cry over this kind of thing, Dr. Laura? Should I have encouraged him to cry, big son that he was, when he turned to me and let the shovel fall and wrapped his muddy hands around me? Can tears turn to strychnine in your child's veins because you didn't say okay, let them out?

The truth? The truth is I knew as certainly as I knew Roller was dead that if I'd said a word to my son at that moment, he would have let go of me. And I didn't want him to let go, Dr. Laura. I wanted to hold him forever.

Mixed messages? You think that was it? That my love and expectation and trust and yes, anger too, weakened him? That the alloy of my feelings, the making of my own motherhood, did in my son, my beloved, beautiful boy?

Before? In the months before?

He was a grown man, Dr. Laura. Living on his own in the city. I knew better than to call him daily; that wouldn't have been right, would it? For a mother to call her twenty-four year old son every night to check on him? A son who had an apartment and a car, a job he'd studied for, a lovely girlfriend? He'd become a man, Dr. Laura, and I was so proud of him.

I didn't cling, if that's what you're suggesting. I have my own life, my work and my home, my books. I sometimes passed a whole day without thinking, consciously anyway, about Toby. And when I did, I'd just wonder to myself: were he and Kayla going to live together some time soon, the way they'd mentioned to me? And if they did share house, would they want the pine cutting board Toby had made for me when he was in wood shop? Was parking still impossible in the street outside his apartment? Would he agree to the technical training in Denver, even though it would mean being shortlisted for a move there?

I didn't keep a scorecard of his doings. And, then, I couldn't see warning in the signs I cannot consider now without shuddering.

Is that my fault? That I didn't read the signs?

What?

He called me, two months before, and asked me if I remembered when we flooded the kitchen. He was about seven when it happened; we hadn't retold this story in a long, long while. Something had gone wrong with the water meter; I don't understand even now exactly what. We were testing why we didn't have any water. So we opened all the taps, bathroom and kitchen, to see if we had water flow anywhere. No water, just the air gasping through the pipes. It was dinner time, Dr. Laura; I thought well, we'll just go out and have hamburgers somewhere close, and hope we have water when we come back.

Toby was chattering about where the water might have gone, and I was absent-mindedly trying to recall the name of the plumber I'd used to clear the sewer lines while explaining to my son the little I knew about city water supplies and household plumbing systems. We had our hamburgers and fries and stopped by the market for milk and green Jello--Toby wanted to make those Jello cubes in an ice cube tray, the ones kids can pick up with their fingers because you use only half the water. I think he'd had them at school.

A couple of hours after we'd left the house, we were home again. The water had come back, but I'd left the taps on and the stoppers in the kitchen sink! The whole kitchen was flooded. I remember skidding across the inch-deep water on the linoleum and calling to Toby not to touch anything--electrical shock, I was thinking. I shut off the water and turned to see my son's delighted face, so unusual for him was the sight of our flooded kitchen and his mother in a state of absurd anxiety. We burst out laughing, Dr. Laura, huge belly laughs that had us rolling on the dining room carpet, which was soaked, too. We were hysterical with laughter.

Later, after we'd sopped up the water with every towel and blanket in the house and set Toby's Jello into the freezer, my son hugged me, his arms around my waist, his head pressed against my womb.

Mama?

Tobe?

You're the best person in a flood.

Toby? You're the best person in a disaster. I don't want to be in a disaster with anybody but you.

You are, Ma.

We both are, Tobe, I told him.

I love you, honey.

Was I supposed to see a signal in this, Dr. Laura? That he'd ask me to retell such a story?

Oh, no, I understand you don't use a crystal ball.

I was the one who should have. I was my child's mother. I should have-

Excuse me?

Suicide as an act of revenge?

Well, I never--

For what, Dr. Laura?

No. I called because you like to tell people to do the right thing. I thought I hadn't. I was thinking that you, maybe, being unbiased, not knowing either me or Toby, could help me to--that maybe you would know what the right thing would have been, or what was the single wrong thing that I could put into a question for you--

Of course it's too late! I know that!

Live with my choices?

Dr. Laura, no mother chooses to identify her only child's body that has lain in his apartment's bathtub for two days. No mother chooses to pick up the ringing telephone that's going to tell her to get in the car and come identify the body of what is believed to be her son, who has bled to death in his apartment bathtub. No mother chooses to see her boy--yes, it is her boy, no doubt, even though he's lying there like some clay figure that's lost all its gumption, with nobody to press its feet back on the board--it is her boy and isn't her boy, then, when she identifies the body.

At that moment, her boy isn't who he has always been. Because nothing, nothing, nothing can explain him now, even to the person who has always been his mother.

That's why I called, Dr. Laura.

But your screener let me through.

My one question for you?

You don't need to hear any more. No, no, I understand: enough details; your answer won't change if I speak till I'm blue in the face, till I'm--

A T-Shirt? One of yours?

Dr. Laura? Dr. Laura?

No, thanks. Thank you, but no. No T-Shirt.


Bio: Anna Tuttle Villegas' most recent published work includes a third novel, Baby's Breath (Synergistic Press, 2000). Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in many publications, including The Fiddlehead, The Southwest Review, Iowa Woman, Wordperfect Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor. A veteran college English teacher, she lives in California's Central Valley.


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