“Did your daughter tell you?” my mother says. “I’m married.”
“You’re married?” I don’t have long to talk. I’m calling her on my cell phone during a break at a writers’ conference, but I shut the door to the room and sit down. “Vera left me a message to call you, but she didn’t say why.”
“She said it was cool.” She extends “cool” by three or four o’s, but she doesn’t sound like the same woman who went down to the new Hooters and demanded an employment application. When she told me about it, how she threatened to sue for age discrimination, the laughter sailed up through the gray curls on the top of her head. Now she sounds as if her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.
“Yeah,” I say, wishing I could agree it was cooooool. She told me she had a “friend” the last time I talked to her, several weeks ago. They met in the senior center where she was working and immediately hit it off. His name is Bill, the same as my dad’s. He’s a retired businessman and owns property in Louisiana and Texas.
It was my sister who told me that they were planning such a quick wedding.
“We’ve been here two weeks,” my mother says. A lower-pitched voice — Bill, the new Bill — sounds in the background, and she amends: “Three weeks.”
My mother is eighty-two, tall and substantial, a senior volunteer for the sheriff’s department and someone who can strike up a conversation with anyone. She has always seemed fearless, but the change from talking about getting married to a stranger to actually doing it has set me wondering whether fearlessness or fear is the ruling passion. This woman who has been known to eject eighteen-wheeler drivers from the WalMart parking lot now allows this stranger to place words in her mouth. A chill travels up my spine. I look at my watch.
“Where are you?”
“Harlington, Texas. H-A-R-L-I-N-G-T–” Her new husband corrects her again, and she respells: “H-A-R-L-I-N-G-E-N.”
My dad used to joke about her intelligence. He called her weekly trips to the beauty parlor “Mission Impossible.” She’d laugh and pretend to smack him. At the end, he spent a couple of years not quite recovered from a stroke and a fall. Does his teasing seem different from this Bill’s just because they were married fifty years and he was my dad?
“We’re twenty miles from Mexico, forty miles from Corpus Christi–” She parrots the voice in the background.
She’s also more than six hundred miles from friends and family and more than two thousand miles from me. I try to think gracious thoughts.
“Lawrence has accepted it,” she says. Lawrence is her seventy-five-year-old little brother. What else is he going to say?
She’s still waiting for me to say, “I accept it.” The words won’t come.
“Your sister and Henry had us over for dinner.” I know about this, having heard it from my sister Kathy. “They asked all kinds of questions.”
“Mother just doesn’t look happy with him,” Kathy told me. “She’s only known him two weeks. Ask her to think about it before she gets married.” But time passed, time zones intervened, teen-aged daughters needed, and when I did call, a recording said that the number was disconnected. It was as if she’d died.
I tell myself now that it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had tried to talk her out of it. She’s always done what she wanted to do, even if it meant agreeing to one thing and doing the opposite.
“They’re not trying to ruin things for you,” I say. “They just want the best.” I take a deep breath, deciding to throw in my lot with my sister and brother-in-law now that it’s too late. “I’ve got some questions myself.”
“What questions?” she wants to know, suddenly sounding like my sixteen-year-old when I ask what time she’ll be in. I think Mom is ready to pull out the checkbook and tell me his bank balance.
I back down. “I just wonder if you’ve known him long enough. If you decide you’ve made a mistake, I’ll be glad to help you.”
“You’re a sweet girl,” she says, and she seems to mean it, though the guilt of that phone lapse makes me wonder how she could.
“I told you how we met, didn’t I?” she says. Yes, but she wants to tell it again. “I was working in the senior center when Bill came in. I said, ‘Can I help you?’ and he said, ‘I’m looking for a wife.’ I stuck out my hand and said, ‘I’m available.'” This is the third time I’ve heard the story. It’s becoming a defining narrative. She waits for me to laugh.
“Are you OK?” I ask. “You sound–” What can I say? As if you married for loneliness and desperation and are starting to regret it? She waits for me to finish — “sad or tired or something.”
“We just got up from a nap,” she says. “I haven’t been so happy in years” — I notice this time detail because my dad died a year and a half ago.
“He wants you–” in the background, he corrects her– “wants the whole family — to come visit us. And we’ll come see you.”
I shiver at that and mentally list nearby motels. In my imagination, he has become something horrific; the danger I fear for her overflows. I think of movies I’ve seen with handsome but murderous gigolos courting lonely rich widows, but she doesn’t have any money, and he is no ladies’ man.
“Hey, Sugar.” The deep voice is in my ear, not in the background. His words make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
I bend my lips around my teeth in an imitation of a smile. “Pleased to meet you,” I say.
“Your mother is reducing,” he says, “though I haven’t put her on a diet. And we haven’t gotten any birth control pills.” He waits for me to laugh at his joke. When he thinks I missed it, he tries it again. “We bought some pills for her in Mexico, but no birth control pills.”
“Oh,” I say.
“I’ll be pleased to meet you,” he says, “you and your lovely daughters.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say again. “I have to go now. Can I talk to Mom again?”
She’s back. “I’ve done the right thing,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”
I hope so.
“As long as I’m happy, that’s the main thing,” she says.
I was supposed to say that.