3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Spring 2005

The Odds It Would Be You

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
Alice Mattison

In 1976, when Bradley Kaplowitz was twenty-eight, he took lessons and learned to drive. A New Yorker with a pocket full of subway tokens costing fifty cents each, he rented a Dodge Dart so he could take his bald mother, Bobbie, on vacation. Bradley worked at a downtown bookstore, where a regular customer had mentioned an old-fashioned resort in the Adirondacks, at which he'd spent a week or two each summer since childhood. "Loons!" said the man. Though Bradley was hoping to be a writer, he didn't know what kind of birds loons were. The man described cabins at the edge of a lake. The dining room served three meals a day, he said, but the place wasn't fancy. "Nothing dressy," Bobbie had said.

With many miles still to drive on Route 28, Bradley and his mother turned off the Northway, which they had never seen before, at Warrensburg. Bobbie remembered long-ago trips on Route 9 to Lake George—the Burma Shave signs, the motor courts with their tiny separate houses. When Bradley was a baby, he and Bobbie—his father had already departed—were brought along on a vacation by Bobbie's sister Sylvia and her husband, Lou.

"Are you tired? Do you want to stop?" Bradley asked, as they drove into Warrensburg. His mother sat trustingly beside him in her orange-pink turban, a color too harsh for her skin. He wanted to stop. As soon as he had a license, she was sure they could drive anywhere.

"I should take my pills," she said. He found a little lunch counter. They'd had lunch outside of Albany, but now they ordered pie and coffee. The waitress brought water. "In New York these days, you have to ask for water," Bobbie said.

Bradley hated watching her take the array of pills. She did it with abandon, like a starlet in a movie tossing down barbiturates after being left by her lover. Bobbie tipped her head back to gulp the water, but ate little of her lemon meringue pie.

They traveled west. They were going to a big lake, the site of the crime in the real story behind An American Tragedy. Bradley had read it at City College but he barely remembered it, yet it was still vivid for Bobbie, who said she'd read it in high school. "He rows her out onto the lake—" she said. "You know he's going to do it, but you're begging him, 'Don't!'"

After a while she slept, her lipsticked mouth open, her head tilted back. The turban was askew when Bradley glanced at her. When she awoke she resettled it, telling him, her voice a little groggy, "Want to hear something funny? When I first bought it and put it on, I thought, This isn't going to stay. Then I thought, I know what I need, a hatpin! Picture it, honey, picture it."

Bradley didn't want to picture it, but couldn't help it: as he steered around curves, his hands tight on the wheel, he imagined the fake pearl at one end, the sharp point at the other, not sliding harmlessly through tangled hair but straight into his mother's skull. "Horrible," he said. "Hush."

"Edwin didn't want to hear about it either." Edwin Friend was his mother's boyfriend. If they'd married, Bradley considered, would Edwin have been braver? He and Bobbie were the same age, but now he looked older than she did, old from fear, though he was well. Edwin drove Bobbie to doctors' appointments, waiting in his big car outside. "I don't like it when they call me Mr. Kaplowitz," he told Bradley. If his mother had become Bobbie Friend—such a lighthearted name—would she have gotten well, gotten her hair back: a tentative fuzz, then a soft crewcut, then thickening curls?

They reached the resort after five. When Bradley opened the car door, the air was pungent with the smell of the woods. His legs trembled as he walked to the office to check in, while Bobbie waited in the car. He put from his mind the knowledge that he'd have to drive as far again in only a week.

"The wood boy will come to your cabin every morning at 6:30," the woman in the office told him placidly.

"The what?" It sounded like an animal. Bradley looked past her as she sat in front of a window. The lake glittered in the late afternoon sun. He heard the whirr of a motorboat, then saw it pulling a water-skier, who fell. The boat circled round for her.

"The wood boy. He's quiet." Water in the cabin, she said, was heated by the fireplace. The wood boy would start a fire each morning, so Bradley and his mother could take hot showers.

He got back into the car and described this arrangement to his mother, afraid she'd scold or grow petulant, feeling guilty for luring her here. The man in the bookstore hadn't mentioned the wood boy. But Bobbie laughed. "I wonder if the water really gets hot," she said. "Well, we can bathe in the lake." Bradley turned the key in the ignition one last time, and followed the instructions the woman had given him, driving slowly along a rutted road behind several widely separated log cabins, and at last parking the car. He turned off the engine and now let himself take in the silence, which was broken only by the light sound of the lake and the hum of the motorboat that pulled the water-skiers. He didn't bother with the suitcases, but helped his mother out, and they walked up some rough steps cut into the hill. His pants clung to his legs, but a breeze was already drying the sweat and making him cool.

The cabin had two bedrooms and a living room. In the bathroom, a tank for hot water felt cold to Bradley's touch. His mother hadn't followed him inside. She sank into an Adirondack chair on the porch, facing the lake. "Oh, honey, look," she called. He knew what she meant: it was what they had imagined: birch trees, evergreens, the lake, and dense woods beyond it. He was giddy with relief, carrying in their suitcases. Then he took her arm, and they walked on the lakeside path to dinner. That night they heard the reckless laughter of a loon.

Next day it rained. Sure enough, the wood boy was quiet, but Bradley awoke and listened. He waited in bed until he heard the boy leave, listening to the thump of logs being lowered to the floor and the sound of rain right above his head. Then he went into the living room, where a fire blazed from tinder.

After breakfast, Bobbie sat in her Adirondack chair on the porch, knitting a little sweater of fine yellow wool. One of Bradley's cousins was pregnant. Bradley sat in the other chair, looking at the gray lake and misty woods, digesting the unaccustomed breakfast-he'd had eggs and toast and potatoes. He was sleepy and bored, but content. It seemed that all he needed to do was keep Bobbie where she was, sitting back with her elbows close to her body, as the silvery blue knitting needles, with sixes on their bottoms, made their way, forward and back, through the looped and twisted yarn. She came to the end of a ball, which had slowly unraveled at her feet. She took another skein from her old pink quilted knitting bag, which Bradley had known most of his life. Now Bradley hitched his chair closer to his mother's so he could hold the skein on his outstretched wrists. As Bobbie wound her ball, Bradley tried to be even more helpful, tilting the skein this way and that by raising one arm slightly, then the other, his palms up. Without the yarn, he would have looked like someone beseeching. His mother's face looked young and enterprising as she worked, biting her lip slightly, concentrating. Finally the new ball—perfectly round, like something from a photograph on a calendar, including a kitten—was done.

"You're a good son," she said. "A better son than a mother."

"No," said Bradley. "A wonderful mother."

She was silent. With the ball in her lap, she tied its end to the short end of yarn coming off the yellow scrap that hung from the needles. Beginning to knit again, she said, "I'm sorry, honey."

"For what, what's wrong?" he said.

"Oh, nothing's wrong here, it's lovely," she said, as if he'd been the one who'd apologized. She glanced toward the lake, where mist rose in curls and streaks. "I mean—"

He knew now what she meant. "Hush," he said.

She was apologizing for what was going to happen. A good mother does not leave her son.

At lunch, Bradley ate onion soup for the first time. As he ate, he felt something alien in his mouth, and before he could decide not to, he'd swallowed it. It stuck, neither up nor down. Bobbie was talking about Edwin. "We could have married," she said. "We always meant to." Edwin had had a wife, a secret wife whom Bobbie somehow knew about. Then Edwin had divorced his wife. In the days when he'd claimed to be a bachelor, he said he couldn't marry because of his old, frail mother, and maybe that had been the truth all along, wife or no. His mother was still alive, managing alone in a smelly apartment in Red Hook, in her nineties. "But I'm not sorry!" Bobbie now said brightly.

Bradley didn't want to frighten her. He cleared his throat. Then, feeling self-conscious, he used his finger, but of course he couldn't reach whatever it was. At last he said, "I've got something caught in my throat," and his mother stiffened with alarm, her eyes wide open.

"I can talk, it's all right," Bradley said, but he couldn't endure the sensation, the sense of something caught. "Excuse me." He left the dining room. It was still raining lightly. Outside the building, he leaned over, panicky now, pressing his hands on his knees. He didn't care if he vomited, even if everyone in the dining room saw. He coughed and retched, but nothing came. Had the object moved? Was it blocking his windpipe? At last, as his eyes teared, he strained and brought up saliva, and something. He drew it out: a woody brown piece of the skin of an onion. His throat was swollen from his straining. He dropped the onionskin, wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and returned to the dining room. All the children in the room looked up as he entered. The waitress, a college girl, approached him. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Bradley said. "I had a piece of onionskin lodged in my throat, but I coughed it up."

Outside, the rain seemed to be stopping, and blue areas appeared in the sky. Bradley gingerly ate a little more soup. "You're sure you're okay, honey?" Bobbie said.

"I'm sure."

While they ate dessert, the chef came out of the kitchen and walked over to their table. He was a skinny man in an apron and a chef's hat. "I just want to apologize," he said.

"Oh, it's nothing," Bradley said, wishing the incident would end.

"I saw the onionskin fall into the pot, but I just couldn't find it," the chef said. "I was afraid somebody would get it. Now, what were the odds it would be you?"

Puzzled, Bradley calculated the odds-one in about forty, except that not everyone had had soup. The chef's question seemed like one only Bradley could ask, but it pleased him.

Afterwards, the weather cleared, but it was too cool to swim. Bradley had been adding logs to the fire all day, and for the first time since their arrival, the water tank was hot, so they both took showers. Then he proposed that they take out a canoe.

"I won't be much help," his mother said.

He had been to Boy Scout camp. "I think I can do it," he said.

The placid woman in the office was on the phone, so while he waited Bradley looked at a map of the lake that hung near her desk. Then she helped him carry a wooden canoe out of a shed and along the dock, dropping two life jackets into the bottom. No one was on the dock. The water-skiers, who had appeared as soon as the rain stopped, were gone. Bradley and the woman lowered the canoe into the water, while Bobbie stood by, her hand on the turban. There was a breeze. Then the woman held the rim of the canoe, kneeling on the dock in her blue jeans and leaning forward, while Bradley helped his mother into the bow, and settled himself in the stern with his paddle. The woman gave a brief underhand wave and turned back to the office.

Bradley remembered the stroke. Soon he found a rhythm, and in a short time he'd brought them a little distance from the dock, with the shore on his right. He struck out for deeper water, afraid of running aground.

As if continuing the conversation that had been interrupted at lunch, his mother said, "It's not always a bad thing, not to marry. At least I was married long enough to have you!"

"Yes," Bradley said to her back, not sure where this was going.

"Something I think about," she said. "You know, honey. The way you are. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with it, you know. But not to marry, have children..."

"Yes," Bradley said, stroking hard. He steered past an inlet that looked narrow and shallow. The shore beyond it curved out, then in. He saw only a few houses in the dense evergreen woods.

"I think—if your father had stayed, if I'd been different, a different sort of mother. Maybe it wouldn't have happened."

Bradley was silent, considering what to say. He felt angry, and paddled hard but didn't speak until the feeling passed. "I can't imagine being different," he said then. "I was meant to be gay."

"Then it's all right?" she said, her back in a white sweater in front of him, her head looking ahead of her in its foolish turban.

"It's all right," he said.

They kept on, moving swiftly. Bobbie studied the lake shore. "Maybe we'll see a deer coming to drink," she said. But a short time later she said, "Shall we go back, honey?"

He'd tired her. He turned the canoe. Now the shore was on his left. The resort was a long way off, past a peninsula he'd need to steer around. In front of him, his mother had folded her arms against the wind, which was now in their faces. It was hard to paddle, and he was tired. They'd gone too far.

"Are you cold?" he said.

"A little." He insisted on giving her his sweater, a woolen pullover. He took it off and held it out to her, but she wouldn't put it on over her white nylon cardigan. She took that off and handed it back to him. "Around your shoulders, at least. It will make a little difference." To please her, Bradley tied the white sleeves around his neck. The sweater did give him a little warmth. "Now, you wouldn't drown a girl in the lake," his mother said, and it took him a minute to remember An American Tragedy.

The lake looked entirely different from the other direction. Bradley remembered a brown boat house, but he didn't see it. He came to the entrance to an inlet. Could the resort be in it? Had he come out into the wider lake, not realizing because the curve was gentle on that side? This inlet seemed too wide to be the one he'd bypassed, but he didn't enter it. Now and then they passed a dock, but never one that looked familiar. Children he'd seen swimming had disappeared. Bradley realized that he had no idea how their resort would look from the water. He couldn't remember how close to the shore the office was, whether the shed from which they'd taken the canoe would protrude from the trees. Maybe they'd already passed the resort. He paddled, rested, paddled. They made slow progress against the wind. Bradley looked at his mother, bulkier than she really was in the brown sweater, like a sturdier, more practical mother. She'd never wear brown. His throat was sore from the mishap at lunch. It felt as if he'd been crying, or as if he was getting a sore throat, the cozy kind that makes it permissible to shed responsibility and go to bed with tea and books. He'd liked that kind of illness as a child. Bobbie would bring him alphabet soup and chocolate pudding.

In his mind, Bradley again stood in the office, idly waiting for the woman who owned the resort to end her telephone call, staring at the map. Looking at the now cloudy lake, he struggled to form the map again in his mind, the kidney shape of the lake, with an extra lobe. He pictured the smudged black print, the lake's firm outline. The resort was marked with a star, closer to the western than the eastern end. It was on a wide, gently curved bay. Then came the inlet, then another bay, and then a peninsula.

"Someone will come along," his mother said, and he knew she knew they were lost.

"That's right," said Bradley, but he saw no boats. The tangled woods came down to the lake, and it seemed that nobody lived in them. Stroking and stroking, his tired hands gripping the paddle, his throat aching, Bradley brought his mother a little farther, then again a little farther, over the water.

Alice Mattison’s eighth book of fiction is called In Case We’re Separated: Collected Stories. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact Us

The Threepenny Review