“The Estrangement”

Brady flew from L.A. to Phoenix for his mother’s funeral. When he pulled his rental car into the cemetery lot, he saw her friends already seated under the canopy — the women she went to the casinos with, tanned and sagging, crinkly smiles, hair dyed unnatural shades. He slipped into the front row and kissed his two sisters, a peck on the upturned cheeks they offered him. They must’ve been waiting for his arrival because as soon as he sat down, his older sister — the blond one — gave the nod.

Clearly, the minister hadn’t known their mother. She wouldn’t have liked his repeated references to her as a “Christian woman.” It makes me sound old, Brady could hear her say.

Afterward, his sisters presided like a pair of crows, in their dark dresses, cawing red-lipped mouths, shifting from one foot to the other as their high heels sunk into the grass. Brady knew they were enjoying telling everyone that he and their mother hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. “The last time was Christmas Eve,” he heard one say. Then they took turns adding color to their story.

“You know Brady. He got ugly drunk before the ham and sweet potatoes were even served.”

“His wife left him. Louise, you remember. Took their little son Cal with her. That was his excuse anyway for getting totally wasted,” the shorter brunette said. “Started telling his raunchy jokes.”

“What can you expect? He always talks dirty to women when he’s drunk. Doesn’t matter who — sisters, mother, old-lady neighbors.”

“Finally, Mother just screamed at him to leave.”

His sisters had long cultivated a hard-kernelled bitterness towards him, rooted in their envy. Could he help it that he’d gotten their mother’s good looks? That even when banished he was still her favorite? How it would have galled them to know the truth. Sure, his mother threw him out. But a couple of weeks later, when he called her one night, all was forgiven. “Your sisters don’t have to know,” she’d purred.

During his supposed estrangement, Brady and his mother had often talked on the phone for hours as he rattled around his empty little house in the Hollywood Hills. Sometimes their calls included watching movies together. His ear growing hot and sore from the receiver. His mother laying down her headset to make popcorn. Him listening to her crunching while he nursed his beer.

Not seeing his mother’s face — her not seeing his — made way for a different kind of conversation.

“Your father never could figure out how to turn me on.”

“Jesus, Mother.”

“Well, it’s true. All I’m saying is, maybe that’s why Louise left you.”

“We did fine in that department.”

“I don’t care how gorgeous you are, Brady. Looks aren’t actual sex.”

Fair-haired and lithe, his mother had been beautiful. In a picture his father kept on his desk, her cloche hat dipped close to one eye with an elegance equal to the background of gleaming fenders in his father’s Pontiac lot.

“Believe me,” her voice came to Brady from deep in her throat, “I got more pleasure from looking at myself than your father ever gave me.” Her laugh was low, teasing, sexy.

“You’re flirting,” Brady said.

She laughed again. “I bet you’re just like your father. All talk and no action.”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’m like you.”

“Now who’s flirting?” she said.

Brady remembered her at her vanity table. He had been about Cal’s age — six or so — when he and his mother started playing a game, the rules unspoken but understood. To win, he had to tiptoe down the hallway, sneaking up without her knowing. “I heard you from a mile away,” she’d call out from her room before he ever reached her.

But one morning, expecting every step to end the game, he arrived at her threshold eager to shout his victory. When he looked through the doorway, he caught sight not of his mother, but of her reflection.

The woman in the mirror leaned forward, touched a finger to the wave of hair that fell across her cheek. He watched as she laid her hands, a pair of delicate fans, against her collarbones. She moved them down along her lacy slip, sweeping them over her breasts, squeezing, cleavage rising.

She must’ve heard his quickened breath because her hands flew to her lap but not before her eyes met his in the mirror. He looked away, cheeks hot, a swirling in his belly. He thought she might scold him for spying, change the rules of the game. Instead, she pretended he wasn’t there, looked back into the eyes of the woman in the mirror and began moving her brush smoothly through her hair. As he retreated down the hall, she called, “I heard you from a mile away.”

The night his mother had her stroke, he’d autodialed her number from his favorites list just before 8:00. “Turn to AMC,” he said. “We can just catch Yellow Sky.”

He heard her shuffling through the crosswords and the magazines on the TV tray next to her chair. After she found the remote, he waited while she pressed through the channels with what he imagined was a manicured thumb. When the movie was over, she’d yawned and said, “An all-time great.”

In her old age, his mother had become thick-waisted, her eyelids pouchy, but the woman he’d been calling for months was velvet-eyed at her vanity. He was going to miss her.

Seated again in his rental car, Brady heard the last words of one of his sisters float through his open window — “I swear I called Mother about fifty times that night, but the line was busy for hours. Who on earth did she have to talk to for so long?”

Brady caught his dark eyes in the rearview, smiling as he turned the ignition.

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About Andrea Jarrell

Andrea Jarrell’s debut memoir, "I’m the One Who Got Away," was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Post, and other sites, journals, and anthologies.