Pavel placed the salad on the table.
“It’s the one you like,” he shouted.
“Thanks,” his mother called back, from the kitchen “I’m hungry. What is it again?”
“You cooked a turkey?”
“It’s a chef’s salad from the diner.”
“Oh!” As if this changed everything. “Thanks.”
His mother made no move to enter the main room.
“Why don’t you come and eat it?” he said.
“You cooked a turkey?”
“No, it’s the chef’s salad from the diner.”
“Oh! Thanks. Not right now.”
“Why not? It’s the one you like.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Bolo, his mother’s small dog, had started jumping up and down to reach the plastic bowl.
“Down, girl,” Pavel said.
“What’s that?” his mother said.
“I was talking to the dog.” Pavel began to distract Bolo from the dinner. “Come on! Who’s a good girl? Are you a good girl?”
“Yes,” his mother said.
“I said I’m good. Everything’s fine.”
Pavel was following Bolo, who had assumed the hunkered down, I’m-ready-to-play position before running off. He pursued her for a few feet and then was stopped by a patch of the animal’s faeces, around which Bolo had expertly manoeuvred. He saw that it wasn’t the only example of her excrement on his mother’s once well-maintained and now utterly mangy carpet. Pavel’s parents had lived in this dark one-bedroom in midtown for decades, and it was where he had been raised.
“You haven’t been taking her out?”
Pavel turned and saw the mail, unopened for weeks, piled up on the sideboard. A rent notice was on top, as if stranded there, screaming for help.
“That money I send you…”
“Could you come out here, please?”
There was a pause during which their battle of wills was fought in silence. Eventually, his mother capitulated and entered the living room. She was completely unkempt, in a stained dress she never removed even to sleep, and her once-lustrous white hair was the colour of a stormy sky. She shifted to one side, so that part of her face was obscured.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
“What’s what with my what?”
“Turn towards me.”
“Tada!” His mother did so with a weird and hammy smile, revealing a bruise that covered half her head, as purple as one on a boxer who’d been beaten to death. Her part-pirouette sent a spray of Vodka smell Pavel’s way. “I hit my head on the bathroom door, when I opened it,” she said.
“I think it’s time to bring someone in full-time.”
Dabbed by old lipstick as if by blood, his mother’s lips began to tremble, and her voice grew clogged. “I don’t want that.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to move back in.”
Pavel knew that, while addressing him, his mother meant his father, to whom he bore a strong resemblance. She had become a serious alcoholic since he died two years ago, of cancer.
“You know I can’t do that,” he said.
“Oh, no? Why not?” As if he were a lying child.
“Look, I’m sorry Dad died, but…”
Hit by this blast of truth, his mother rocked backwards, her eyes widening and then narrowing as if having no choice but allow it in. Then she threw up her hands, in a show of exasperation.
“Everything was going so well!” she cried.
She spoke as if she had never known that death might be a possibility for her husband or herself. She had been kept by him from all unpalatable facts of life: this had been their understanding, their arrangement, their marriage. The dog shit on the floor, the empties, the black eye; they were the inevitable results of its unravelling.
“We’re going to have to bring someone in,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” The dog barked as if protesting or cheering, he couldn’t tell which.
Pavel knew he’d keep providing food and plastic poop bags, paying the bills, trying to protect her, as his father had done with more success. Alone in the elevator going down, he said aloud:
“I wish she’d died first,”
Pavel didn’t bring a chef’s salad to his next stop: he knew it wasn’t necessary. Here, instead of being kept at arm’s length from anyone, he was drawn immediately into an embrace, which took him an effort to end.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay, Dad.”
“Hungry?” his father asked.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“You sure? It’ll only go to waste. Come and put the feedbag on!”
Pavel had to admit the spread looked inviting. He saw stuffed sandwiches, sides of dripping coleslaw and plates of cookies decoratively arranged on a shiny oak table. The drapes had been parted revealing a fifteenth-story view of the harbour and its flotilla of pleasure boats.
His father put one arm firmly around Pavel’s shoulders, as if this was all he needed to secure his son’s place in the world. His confidence hadn’t changed, had merely been transferred to his new home, which he had already filled with fancy new possessions and his big personality.
“Why don’t you say hello?”
His father pointed at the open door to a bedroom.
“Hi, Astrid!” Pavel whispered more than called.
After a second, there was a weak female reply, almost inaudible.
“She’s tired today,” his father said.
Pavel remembered that Astrid had been tired the last time he visited, too. Dance music was coming from the bedroom. The volume had been lowered; now it was raised.
“She has a lot of pep,” his father said, “being so young. And that can tucker her out. Better to already be old and exhausted, right?”
Pavel could see strain starting to show beneath the old man’s eyes. Astrid was his new wife; thirty years his junior. He’d married her two years after Pavel’s mother had died of cancer.
“Is that lamp new?” asked Pavel.
“Yep,” his father said. “So are the rug, the wallpaper, and the tea service. The gal’s got taste, right?”
Pavel scanned the room and his eyes landed on three suitcases, as yet unpacked, in a corner.
“Someone moving out?” he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Moving in,” his father said. “Astrid’s pal Milo is a lifeguard at the club, the place where I met Astrid. He was fired for performing a too-saucy tired swimmer’s carry. So now he’s crashing here.”
Pavel could have sworn he heard a muted masculine growl added to the female murmur beyond the bedroom door, right before it was kicked definitively shut.
“Milo’s a great guy,” his father said. “I hope he’ll get on his feet soon.”
His own double meaning seemed lost on him.
“Until then everything is on you?” Pavel asked.
His father seemed relieved at having this acknowledged. Playing to type, he protruded his lower lip in imitation of an infant and theatrically pulled out his empty front pocket. Then, uncomfortable even being comically candid, he yanked a packed wallet from his back pocket and waved it around.
“Nah, everything’s fine,” his father said. “Nothing to see here. Move along!”
Pavel opened his own wallet, removed the cash he had on hand, a lot, for it was Christmas tipping time, and forced it into his father’s palm. To his shock, the old man took it, giving him a quick glance of gratitude. Then he turned away and watched the boats list in the harbour.
“If only I could have done more to save your Mom,” he said.
He still felt responsible for everything, as he had for better or worse in their marriage. “Some things are out of our hands, Dad,” Pavel said, to no avail.
If only he’d died first, Pavel thought, but of course couldn’t say it.
Pavel’s last stop was his first real one. It was a fancy hotel not far from his parents’ apartment, the lobby restaurant of which had been their favourite brunch spot. The hollandaise sauce is heaven, either his mother or father had always said.
The concierge accompanied Pavel to the fifth floor, where he saw the paramedics and police.
Over the phone, Pavel had been told that the chambermaid had found them. His parents had taken an overdose of Nembutal and were holding hands on a double bed where they had died simultaneously.
Simultaneously, on his drive there, Pavel had felt relief and grief. Just like his parents, he was in control and utterly at sea. The three of them had another thing in common: they had all seen the future.
Laurence Klavan wrote the story collection, The Family Unit and Other Fantasies, published by Chizine. An Edgar Award-winner, he received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London.
His website is www.laurenceklavan.com