a short story by Jill Jepson
BEFORE DONOVAN COMES to visit, I give my mother three rules.
“Don’t serve meat. Donovan doesn’t eat it, doesn’t even want to be in the same room with it. And don’t mention his tattoos.”
“What am I supposed to serve then?”
“Serve your…” Her what? My mother makes beef stew, meat loaf, pork chops in gravy, chili con carne. On special occasions, she makes a standing rib roast. “Just make a salad and vegetable soup. Open a can, if you have to. It would be better to open a can than serve something that’s going to offend Donovan.”
“Hmmph. Open a can.”
My mother is a miniature woman with a tiny, pinched face. She wears wire-rimmed spectacles that don’t suit her—it’s not like she’s intellectual—and she’s always pursing her lips. She purses them now, as she washes dishes and ponders what she’ll serve the latest of the young men I’ve met at Missouri State. She calls them “The Boyfriends,” pretending she can’t remember their names. “How is The Boyfriend?” she’ll ask over the phone. “Are you still going out with The Boyfriend?” She has to know Donovan’s different, I tell myself. I’ve never come home over spring break before, and I’ve sure never had a man visit from college. The others were just names to her, but Donovan she’ll meet face to face.
“What’s number three?” She dips her hands into the dirty, sudless water. “You said there were three rules.”
“Oh. Well, now don’t be offended, okay? Promise me you won’t be offended.”
“I promise I will be. But tell me.”
“Okay, it’s this: Please don’t talk about religion.”
My mother’s thin lips crochet into a tiny circle. Her pale blue eyes stare at me through her glasses.
“Donovan has a problem with organized religion,” I explain.
“He likes his religion disorganized?”
“He doesn’t like religious organizations.”
“He’s an atheist?”
“He’s a pantheist.”
“Do I have to put the Virgin in a drawer?”
A statuette of the Blessed Virgin has stood on my mother’s mantel since as far back as I remember, her eyes looking to Heaven, her hands folded on her chest. She looks infinitely sad and way too young to have a son in his thirties.
“No, of course not. I don’t mean you have to hide the fact that we’re Catholic. Donovan knows—I’ve talked about it enough. I just mean don’t get on it. Don’t go on and on.”
Mother is rinsing a spoon. She has been rinsing the same spoon for more than a minute. “He’s embarrassed about his tattoos. That’s a good sign.”
“He’s not embarrassed. What makes you say that? He likes his tattoos. I just mean, don’t say anything sarcastic. If you want to compliment them, fine.”
“Like I would compliment a tattoo.” She puts the spoon in the dish drainer, turns off the water, and pulls the plug. The dirty water burps and glugs down the drain. Mother dries her hands on her apron. I wait, and finally it comes: “Your father had a tattoo.”
My father was a sailor who went to sea and stayed there. He drowned in the Pacific Ocean. His body was never found. My father died before I was old enough to remember. He’s always been a vacant spot in my mind. When I was little, I longed to remember something about him—an image, a scent, anything—but he always remained a shapeless blur at the edge of my memories.
Mother calls my father a hero and a saint. She says that he was a saint, and that they fought. He had a tattoo of a snake on his upper arm, and they fought about that, among other things. For years, I thought that they fought because Mom thinks tattoos are disgusting, but later she told me they fought over what type of snake it was. My father said it was a desert snake, and my mother said it was a water snake. Dad said you could tell it was a desert snake, because it had red and green markings and because of the way it was holding its head. “But you can’t tell by the markings,” Mother always tells me. “The red and green don’t tell you anything. It’s the way it moves that tells you water or land, and you should have seen the way that thing moved when your father flexed his muscles.”
When I picture my parents together, they’re both middle-aged, the way Mom is now. Never young, sharing popcorn in the movies. Holding hands across the dinner table. I can’t imagine them being in love in the way that Donovan and I are. In the way that makes me feel lost when he has been away.
If Mom does have the idea Donovan is just another one of my boyfriends, like a bead in a string of interchangeable beads, she doesn’t know me the way she thinks she does. Donovan has dark hair that brushes his shoulder, and fine hands, like an artist, and a tattoo of a whale on his forearm. I’m not ashamed to say, it was the whale I first fell in love with. Sitting in American Lit, I saw it, sleek and strong, somehow both sweet and powerful. I couldn’t take my eyes off the shape of the thing, or that one eye that seemed to stare right at me. It was unique. Sailors, punks, New-Age pagans, hipsters, burned-out Vietnam vets—they all have their own styles of tattoo, but I’ve never seen one who had a whale before. After the first time Donovan and I made love, in his studio apartment over the bakery, I woke up to find my face resting against that whale. I lifted my head and surveyed it, studied that single eye. “Megaptera novaeangliae,” Donovan whispered in my ear. “It has the longest song of any animal in the world.” It’s true, what Mom says: I’ve dropped most of my boyfriends after a few months and didn’t mourn any of them. But I mourn Donovan every morning I wake up and that whale isn’t cradling my head.
On the evening Donovan is to ride his bike over from Springfield, Mom has made standing rib roast, string beans cooked with ham, potatoes flavored with beef broth, and biscuits with little bits of bacon and cheese cooked in. The Virgin stands on the mantel in a wreath of plastic flowers. To the right of her, Mom has propped a picture of Saint Agnes, to the left a picture of Saint Teresa of Avila. Votive candles burn in front of the pictures. Around each candle lies a rosary.
I look at Mom and she seems to be standing in some sort of fog. “What is going on here?” A light goes on. “This is some kind of retribution, isn’t it?”
“Retribution?” She lifts her roast from the pan to a serving platter, pursing her lips.
“You’re punishing me! You’re mad because I said not to talk about Catholic things all night, and that’s why you have these saints all over the place. And this meat! Look at all this meat!”
“The only reason I would honor Saint Agnes is to punish my daughter?”
“Since when do you honor the saints? I’ve never seen a votive candle in this house in my life.”
“So, I’m turning over a new leaf. I think it will be nice to honor the martyrs. You could use a little more religion in your life, too. But that’s your business, now that you’re grown. I’ll stay out of it, as long as you stay out of mine.”
Frantically, I try to think of how I will make this dinner not turn into a nightmare. Donovan will see me through, I think. Being with him will give me strength. When I think of Donovan, my knees grow weak, but my spirit grows strong.
I check the clock. He should be arriving any minute. I go into the bathroom to check my makeup. I’m wearing my stretch jeans that make my legs look long and an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse. I freshen my lipstick—Coral Flame—and take a step back to look myself over. I can’t wait to open the door, to see Donovan there. To see the way he first looks at me. To smile and say, “Hi, baby.”
But when I come back into the living room, he’s already there, sitting on the sofa with my mother, and I’ve missed that first look, my chance to kiss him deeply before he comes into the house.
I’ve been imagining this evening as Donovan and me in united front. We’d sit together on the couch while Mom spent a lot of time in the kitchen, not saying much. So it comes as a shock that she has decided to act like Donovan is king of the May. They are next to each other on the couch. He is telling a story about his cross-country motorcycle trip, and she is turned toward him, hanging on to every word. “Is that right?” she says. “You really did?”
“Hi, baby,” I say. But the effect isn’t there.
Donovan gives me a peck on the cheek when I sit down next to him, but then he turns back to Mom. He says, “I drove straight through to Winnemucca. Nonstop.”
Mom says, “Winnemucca!”
I might as well not be here.
“You ever been to Winnemucca, Mrs. O’Day?” Donovan asks.
“No,” I answer.
Donovan turns to look at me. “I know you haven’t, Wil. I thought your mother…”
“Mr. O’Day was in Winnemucca many times,” Mom says. “He used to go through there on his way back to Missouri from the West Coast. Always described it as a pleasant sort of place.”
Donovan lights up. “He liked it? Well, I suppose it’s changed since those days, but I can’t say I care for it. I go more for city life, you know? Real city, I mean. Winnemucca’s more like a town.”
“Maybe Winnemucca looked good to Mr. O’Day because he’d been out to sea,” Mom offers. “After floating around in the water all those months, a place in the desert might seem pretty nice. Of course, he always went back to the sea. He’d loved the ocean. In the end, he went back for good.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Donovan looks embarrassed. “Wilmajean told me about losing her dad so young. How hard it was and everything.”
I’ve never told him that, and he calls me Wil, not Wilmajean. I want to say something, but I can’t get a word in. Mom and Donovan are going on and on about Winnemucca. Finally, I pipe up. “Anyone want a root beer?” and they both say they would. I go into the kitchen and get three root beers out of the refrigerator.
When I come back, Donovan has his shirt sleeve rolled up and Mom is bending over his arm staring at his tattoos. The sight of my mother ogling Donovan’s tattoos gives me the creeps for some reason I can’t put my finger on. I almost have to avert my eyes as I set their root beers in front of them. I sit down across from them in the easy chair.
Mom is staring down at Donovan’s whale—at my whale, the one I rest my head against, that I kiss sometimes at night. She runs her finger over it. I feel like all the hair on my body is standing on end.
“So why on earth would you decorate your body with pictures of fish?” Mom says. I’ve just taken a drink of root beer. I hold it in my mouth and look from Mom to Donovan and back, thinking now we’re getting somewhere. Mom is showing her true colors. Sparks are going to fly.
Donovan looks down at the bluish humpback on his forearm. “The thing is, Mrs. O’Day, whales are mammals.”
When he says that, Mom looks up into his face with a surprised expression which she holds for five seconds or so. Then she smiles. “That’s right. I forgot.” She looks back down at Donovan’s whale and pokes at it with her forefinger. I almost choke. But Donovan is smiling at her. It’s like they’ve made some sort of connection.
“Mother,” I say. “We need to check the pie.”
“The pie? It’s fine. I took it out a half hour ago. It’s on the shelf in the cupboard.”
“Mother, it needs to be checked.”
Why it would take two women to check a pie that was already done and sitting on a shelf is not the kind of question a man asks. So Donovan doesn’t blink an eye when Mother and I go into the kitchen.
I ask, “What are you doing?”
“I’m checking the pie.” She opens the cupboard door and peers in.
“Don’t play innocent, Mother. What are you doing to Donovan? You’re determined to ruin my evening, so you’ve hypnotized him or something.”
She is looking at me in amazement. Even I can’t believe I’m saying this. “You’re ruining it,” I blurt out.
“What am I ruining?”
“The evening. Everything. This is important to me. I wanted you to see that Donovan is…” I don’t know what to say then. She will never see Donovan the way I do.
She turns away from me, back to the pie. “You did a good job on this.”
“The pie crust. It’s nicely browned.”
When I turn to look at my pie, Mother heads back into the living room. For a moment, I’m pleased at the compliment, then I’m irritated at myself for being pleased. She was just trying to distract me, I think. My anger flares.
I march into the living room. “We’re eating,” I bark. I stomp back into the kitchen and start carrying food out to the dining room table. Mom has already set it with our so-called best china, which is actually old and chipped.
She fills the water glasses. “Come, come!” she chirps, waving Donovan over. She pulls out the chair at the head of the table for him. She and I sit opposite each other.
I watch as Donovan surveys the meal my mother has prepared. “You may have to starve,” I say with great satisfaction. “Everything on the table has meat in it.” I am thinking he may not feel so friendly toward Mom once he sees that she hasn’t made a single thing he can eat.
“Oh, no problem, Mrs. O’Day,” Donovan says, as if my mother had apologized. “I can’t eat the roast, but those potatoes look good.”
“Except they were cooked in beef broth,” I say, looking straight at my mother.
Donovan looks disappointed. “Just a biscuit then.”
“Bacon cooked right in.”
Donovan looks around the table helplessly. For a minute, I think he’s going to ask if the napkins are vegetarian. “Look, it doesn’t matter,” he says finally. “I’ll pick the bacon out.”
I hand him the bowl of biscuits. He takes one, splits it open and begins to pick at the tiny pieces of bacon, putting them in a small pile at the edge of his plate.
“I made a berry pie,” I say, patting his hand. “You can fill up on that.”
We begin to eat, or sort of eat. Donovan picks at his biscuit. I play with my potatoes and beans—I feel funny eating roast in front of a vegetarian. Mother, however, is having no trouble eating. She’s sucking down food like there’s no tomorrow. “So, Winnemucca,” she says.
Donovan finally takes a bite.
“And from there, you went to Denver?”
Donovan nods. “I picked up a hitchhiker on the interstate outside of Limon, Colorado.”
“A hitchhiker! Is that a fact?”
“You meet a lot of interesting people picking up hitchhikers.”
“I’m sure you’re do!” Mom grows unexpectedly quiet. For a moment, she seems to be lost in a dream. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. “It’s odd… ”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that Mr. O’Day used to hitchhike along that route. He always talked about getting rides outside of Limon.” She gives a sentimental little laugh. “He always said he’d come home that route when his merchant marine days were done.”
Donovan doesn’t answer. He’s working on his second biscuit, but his face is serious, like he’s mulling something important. Half-way through his biscuit, he looks up. “It’s kind of strange, your late husband hitchhiking the same road in the same town where I picked a guy up.”
Mom nods slowly. “It is odd, isn’t it? Almost too much of a coincidence.”
Donovan nods. “Kind of gives a person the chills.”
“It does me,” Mom says.
Donovan is eating the bacon-free half of his biscuit. Then he takes a bite out of the meat half, not even noticing.
“I don’t suppose…” Mom hesitates. “You don’t happen to remember the man’s name, do you?”
“Of course he doesn’t, Mother,” I say.
“I just thought he might. I was hoping. Because, you know.”
Unfortunately, I do know. My mother is one of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. She tries to read the future in coffee grounds. She thinks if you stub your toe it is an omen of evil. And she believes in ghosts. Specifically, she believes in the ghost of my father. She has always said he would come back.
“How could he remember the name of a hitchhiker he picked up two years ago?” I say.
“Ducky,” Donovan says.
Mom and I both look at him.
“The man’s name.”
I turn to Mom. “See. His name was Ducky.” My father’s name was Wilbur. “It wasn’t him, Mom.”
But my mother’s eyes have grown wide. They are looking in my direction, but they seem to be looking through me, through the wall, across the yard and the street beyond, on over the Western states to the sea. She whispers, “Oh my God.”
Donovan looks at her with concern. “Is everything all right, ma’am?”
I think, ma’am?
“Yes, yes. It’s just…” She turns to me. “Oh, Wilma, Ducky was my pet name for your father. I called him Ducky, because he loved the water, because he insisted on leaving me for the sea, like a duck.”
“Ducks don’t live in the sea,” I say. I’m not sure I believe this story. I suspect she’s making it up so that Donovan will think he picked up my father’s ghost. Apparently, he’s buying it. His face is the color of Mom’s biscuits.
I roll my eyes. “Please don’t tell me you think dead Dad caught a ride on the back of Donovan’s motorcycle.”
“Whoa!” Donovan says. “You know what I just remembered? The guy I picked up was a merchant marine, just like your late husband. It just came to me.”
My mother’s eyes are misting.
“He said he’d been to Asia. So had Mr. O’Day, right?”
Mother nods. “He was on his way home from Hong Kong when he died. I told you he died at sea, didn’t I?”
“This hitchhiker. His clothes weren’t wet, by any chance?” I say.
Donovan scratches his chin. “No, I don’t think so. But I didn’t pick him up till Winnemucca, so he’d have dried off by then.” He doesn’t even realize I’m being sarcastic.
“I can’t believe this! I simply can’t believe it!” Mom exclaims.
Donovan says, “It’s pretty creepy.”
Suddenly, Mom reaches over and grasps Donovan’s hand. “Would you like to see a picture of Mr. O’Day?”
“I sure would.”
Mom takes Donovan’s arm. They walk back into the living room, talking about the ghost of my father. I am left to finish my beans and potatoes by myself.
Mom gets our old photo albums out of the closet. She and Donovan sit down on the couch side by side. I don’t relish the idea of Donovan seeing me as a slobbering infant, or in my little white bride’s dress on my first communion. But they flip right past those to the faded pictures of my father. We only have a few.
“How about this one?” I hear Mom say. “He’s facing the camera here.”
I look over my shoulder to where they are sitting next to each other on the couch. Donovan is leaning down close to the picture. He takes the album from Mom’s hands and holds it up to the light.
“You know, I don’t remember his face so clear, since he was sitting behind me. But it could be him. It could very well be him.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I mutter. They both ignore me.
I get up and start to clear off the table. Mom says, “Oh, honey, leave everything. Donovan may want some more.”
I am standing with the green beans in one hand and the potatoes in the other. “More of what? He can’t eat anything here.”
“I think I will give the potatoes a try, Wil,” Donovan says. “A little beef broth won’t hurt me.”
I shrug my shoulders. At this point, he could eat a bucket of hog jowls for all I care. I carry my plate and utensils into the kitchen and put them in the sink. I cut myself a piece of my berry pie and take it into the living room. By then, Donovan and Mom are back sitting at the table with the photo album. A thick slice of Mom’s dry roast is sitting on Donovan’s plate. I take my piece of pie over to the couch.
Mom is telling Donovan stories about my father. I haven’t heard these stories for years and years. Some of them I’ve forgotten until now. Some I’m sure I’ve never heard before. She doesn’t tell him how they fought. She tells about their early days together, their tiny apartment, the first time Dad went off to sea, about me being born.
I take a bite of my pie. It’s awful. Runny. I put it down on the coffee table, wondering what I did wrong.
“Where was this one?” Donovan asks, leaning in to get of good view of an old photo.
Mother leans in, too. “Oregon. It’s from a camping trip we took.”
I look up at them. Camping, I think. I think of waves.
“We had a lovely time on that trip, the three of us at the beach.”
“He said they always come back,” I say aloud to no one.
Mom and Donovan look up at me. “What, honey?” Mom says.
“Mom, I remember it. I remember that trip. I remember something Dad said to me.”
“Honey, you can’t remember that trip,” Mom says. “You weren’t even three.”
“We saw whales. Mom, don’t you remember? We saw whales from a boat.”
She frowns. “We did go out on a boat. Whales or no whales, I don’t remember.”
“We saw whales, and I asked Dad about them. What they do under the sea. How they live. He said they dive deep and stay down long. But they come back up. That’s what he said.”
Mom is looking at me with a perplexed expression. “You were way too young to remember this, Wilmajean. No one can remember when they were only three years old.”
“It is pretty far-fetched, Wil,” says Donovan.
But I remember. The sea and the beach, the boat. The tails breaching the water. And my father. His voice. His words.
They go down so deep and stay down so long. But they come back up. They always come back up.
Mom and Donovan have gone over to the mantel. Mom is showing Donovan the picture of St. Agnes. “Do you pray?” she asks.
I don’t want to be around them. I have too much to think about, this new thought to stew. I go into the kitchen. I run water in the dish pan. When I go back in to clear the table, Donovan is holding the picture of St. Agnes, peering at it with an odd, affectionate expression. The man I love is smiling at the picture of a fourth-century virgin.
The words repeat in my head, the man I love, and they don’t fit. I look at Donovan, moving now to St. Theresa.
I gather a stack of dirty plates and carry them back into the kitchen. I put them in the sink. The water is rising. It covers my hands, my dry arms.
Jill Jepson is the author of numerous articles, essays, and short stories, as well as two books, including Writing as a Sacred Path: A Practical Guide to Writing with Passion and Purpose (Ten Speed Press). She is a professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three cats.