At Least Once

Pete Hack | Flash Fiction

Every Sunday for a year, I tried to call my mother. This was 1971, after my father died and after she moved to Hawaii just as she started to forget things. The problem was, I had the name of the place wrong. I thought it was the Golden Shores or the Golden Sands or the Golden something, but it wasn’t. It was the Royal Palms. The Royal Palms Condominiums, but I didn’t find that out until after she died and they sent that nice note.

I didn’t keep any kind of list. I might have called the same forty or fifty numbers over and over again. And there was a Golden Shores resort and a Golden Sands and even a Golden Shadows which I didn’t understand. How could a shadow be golden?

It was a little card, very nice, with a pen and ink drawing of the tree, the Royal Palm, that took up one whole side. The envelope was that heavy cream paper with an embossed palm leaf in blue satin on the fold. Maggie said I should keep it. I put it on the mantle above the fireplace like a little shrine with the note that said: “we regret to inform you that Marjorie June Taylor died on 10 July 1973. Please contact our office to claim her belongings. Please know that you have our sincerest condolences during this difficult time.” And he signed it. Mr. Collin Kahunanui, Manager. Below his name was the phone number of the Royal Palms in solid black numbers.

What I would do, before I got that note, was that every Sunday, after our lunch, after our walk, I would call information and I would wait there on the phone and they would list all the M. Taylors and the J. Taylors in the State of Hawaii and I would pick one, but it was never her.

Mr. Kahunanui addressed the card to A. Taylor. That’s me, but I’m not the only one. I wasn’t sure if Mom could have pinned down my address for him. She knew I was out there, but she might have lost hold of exactly where. Maybe she remembered the state she was from, the city she had lived in for sixty-three years, but there could be a thousand A. Taylors in Doylestown, maybe more, and some of them might have had mothers in Hawaii. Collin Kahunanui might have guessed at it somehow, found a baggage tag that said “Doylestown,” and he sent out my card and hundreds like it. All across the city she was saying goodbye. I wondered what those other A. Taylors thought. Did any of them keep the card? Did they shout and say, “at last. That’s where she was–the Royal Palms.”

They still sailed ocean liners to Hawaii then, out of California. We had hopes for her, that she would stop frowning all the time, but I knew things in Hawaii were expensive. The whole grocery store would make her frown, everything in it shamefully overpriced. How can a gallon of milk cost that much, she would say. But it was her idea to begin with, the moving to Hawaii; it was what she and dad had always planned on. I was just trying to help.

She was with us in our house every single hour for those eight months after Dad. I could never understand why she got up so early when she knew I liked the mornings and Maggie liked the mornings. She took the chair by the garden window and she would look at me to let me know what she wanted. I swear all winter long Mom was there by five a.m. She wanted the same thing every time. Bacon in the pan until burnt and then eggs cooked in the fat. That fat put up a layer of smoke that covered the ceiling. “I can see it,” Maggie said. If I didn’t open the window, even in January, it set off the smoke alarm. Mom would keep on over the noise. “The edges have to be crisp. Let them brown.”

 The problem was that after she moved, I waited too long. Somewhere, the back of an envelope or on a receipt, tucked into a book or stuffed in a drawer, is a slip of paper that says “Mom” with her new phone number, because I know I wrote it down. I would look for that slip of paper, sort through the old mail that seemed to gather, reach behind the little stand where the phone sat, pushing it aside and fishing back behind it, my fingers brushing across the greasy dust on top of the heating grate. I found an envelope once, but it didn’t say “Mom,” or have a phone number. It said, “eggs, rice, oranges, oregano, toilet paper.” I tore it apart, twisted and pulled it into shreds. I could have smashed that phone too and the table it sat on, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.

I can still see her there on the deck of the S.S. Lurline surrounded by her five suitcases and a footlocker too big for her to move. The footlocker was covered in black vinyl with brass fittings at the corners and around the lock. It had rivets buttoned evenly along every edge. Those rounded brass rivets made it slippery somehow and it had one stupid handle on it, made out of leather maybe. My mother was supposed to pick it up by that one handle and drag it behind her, I guess. It was hell getting that thing into her room, 304 on D Deck, but I did it. I pushed it between the bed and the wall where it scratched the paint a little. I was sweating hard, but still keeping that big smile. “Perfect,” Mom said, “I’ll just jump over it when I need to get to the bathroom.”

Maggie and I came on board with her and told her how great it would be in Hawaii and that we couldn’t wait to visit. We’d already said all that and turned around to leave, waving goodbye one more time, but at the stairs I looked back. She stood there staring up at the sky. I pictured her riding the whole way like that, staring at the sky while the Pacific came splashing up the high white sides of the S.S. Lurline, her standing there under the stars and in the wind. She was going to paradise, but she managed to make it look like a punishment. I went back and said, “Let me help you with your bags.”

Mom did everything she could think of to delay the move. She would put a box in the middle of the room and leave it there for hours, as if everything in the room might fall in. That way when I stopped by or Maggie checked on her, she could look at me and say, “See I’ve been packing, like you want me to.” In the end, we had to do it all. One of us would drive her to Lancaster or down to the shore and the other one would haul stuff to the dump. She would come home and wander around the rooms frowning. “My whole life is disappearing around me,” she said.

I threw away all kinds of things: Dad’s tools, his ties, the stack of road maps he kept in the closet under the stairs, but we had to do more than that. All her quilts and embroidered pillows, the little glass animals she bought, a camel, an ox, a donkey, an elephant; I didn’t know what to do with them or who would want them. I left her four plates and four mugs, four cups and their saucers. Her forks and knives and boxes of things she had stored up from my childhood.

I like to think that I called the right number at least once. She was there when the phone started ringing and she was on her way out the door. She had on a wide straw hat and her sunglasses, and maybe she was going snorkeling. She’d taken up snorkeling, and her friends had shown her what to buy, the blue fins, and the blue and black snorkel with the cap at the top to keep water out. She stood there in the doorway listening to the phone ring, wondering if she should answer it, but her friend was telling her, “Come on Marjorie, we’ve got to go,” because they would miss the right wind or maybe it was the tide, or something.  And there was Mr. Kahunanui saying “come on Marjorie, they’ll call back.”