Boston Review

The Milkman & I

Tom Paine

Winner of Boston Review's annual Short Story Contest.

Mother died for the sixth time in six years. The monitor in the emergency room showed her flatlining. The E.R. team moved as if I had a gun. They plugged her into Boston Edison, she tried to backflip off the bed; they shot a wad of adrenalin into the blue lines on her ivory arm. Mother swam back to her body like a trout fighting upstream. It makes no sense at all, given our history, but there I was swimming beside her up the river. I heard her gurgling underwater, "I'm not going!" A second time they whacked her with the electric paddles; mother swam through her chest. "She's back," I said.

Everyone watched the monitor. I looked at my mother.

"She looks like she just got laid," I said.

The E.R. team looked at me and then at mother and caught their breath. Her flowered housedress lay cut in half at her sides, her legs were splayed, her head was lolling off the gurney with her tongue dangling out, and she had a smile, something I had never seen on her face.

"She does," agreed Dr. Cohen.

The E.R. team cracked up. I guess if you deal with this shit all day, you get a twisted sense of humor. I know a good joke, even if it is twisted. My mother was a joke as a mother by the way: she beat the shit out of me; beat as in concussions, burns, that sort of thing. I always got the impression she was prejudiced against me for some reason, to put it mildly. I was the only one of her kids she beat; I was also the only one still hanging around. Someone beats you, surprising as it sounds, sometimes you hang around -- waiting for an explanation for why they hated your face.

The day after Mother was admitted to Beth Israel Hospital she was stable enough to go through the ritual draining of fluids, known to doctors and those sons of alcoholics who give a fuck about medical terminology as paracentesis.

"No," said Dr. Cohen. "Don't do this to me."

Fluid was spraying across the room from a needle stuck into Mother's gut. She was swollen up down there like Dizzy Gillespie's cheek. Her liver had been burned into a soggy pink pile by thousands of quarts of gin. Fluids didn't pass. It looked like it might burst, but it was hard as stone. Besides her steel will, it's about the only thing still hard about mother; the rest of her is eggshell and bird bones.

The spray was arcing across the room, causing a number of the nurses to take cover. I didn't blame them. Cohen was trying to get the plastic tube to the collection bag back on the end of the needle.

"Nobody light a match," I said. "That pus is 90 proof."

They drained at least five liters of fluid. Every admission I tell them they ought to leave the needle, let her drain herself at home when she's too stretched. Cohen was catching the fluid in the face now. It would take her a day to deflate. The A.W.O.L. nurses were returning to the bed. Cohen yanked out the needle, hooked up the tube, shoved it back in. Emergency over, I reached in Mother's bag, pulled out a tiny airplane-style bottle of gin, handed it to Cohen. I thought he could use a drink.

"Alfred," said Mother.

It was quite clear she had spoken, although her eyes were still closed.

"Did she say 'Alfred?'" said Dr. Cohen.

"Alfred," said Mother again.

"Alfred was her husband?" said Dr. Cohen.

"Alfred," I said. "I don't know any Alfred."

Here was Mother almost dead, and for the first time I looked past the gin-filled body, past her beating me, past her being just Mother with a capital M, and saw her as a sheet-covered stranger with a history including an Alfred.

Mother was out of insurance four admissions ago. There was no way I could pay the incredible rates they wanted to insure her, so if my wife Elizabeth wasn't one of the Assistant Directors of Development at Beth Israel, Mother would have been out of luck.

"You know this is the last time," said Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was joking. We were standing outside Mother's door on the fourth floor of the hospital. Elizabeth made sure she had a private room.

"It's always the last time."

"I'm not going!" Mother howled through the door. She was still detoxing; they weren't giving her a lot of Ativan. "You hear me people, I'm not going!"

"Why does she keep saying that?"

"It's new this admission," I said. "She's afraid of dying."

"Alfred!" Mother yelled. "Alfred!"

"Who was Alfred?" said Elizabeth.

"Alfred!" Mother yelled.

"Alfred was the milkman."

Elizabeth gave my arm a squeeze, shook her head and said, "No jokes."

It wasn't a joke, I had called my sister Peg in San Jose about an hour before and asked her about it. Peg is the only one of the five kids who still talks to me. I was the youngest, she was the oldest. She said, "We once had a milkman named Alfred. I think he went to jail."

Mother died the seventh and final time three weeks later. She was reinflating, guzzling down a bottle of gin a day. I found her lying on her back in her apartment. I was dropped to my knees by the stench of death, shit, piss, mothballs, and booze. I dropped the bag of supplies. I heaved, and then puked all over my own hands, all over the cheap oriental rug I had bought her a few years before. Her eyes were open, her lips had tightened and pulled back from her dentures; she was grinning.

I gathered together the supplies, put them back in the bag. I went in the bathroom and washed my hands and then came back and sat on the couch. I looked at the burn marks on the backs of my hands from where she once threw boiling water at me. I looked at Mother's hands; they were thrown up above her head as if she was surrendering; her left hand was against the radiator and her diamond ring sparkled in a shaft of light. I couldn't stop looking at it. I would learn later the neighbors both upstairs and downstairs had heard tapping all night echoing through the radiator pipes. Mother had survived the night, tapping her wedding ring on the radiator while she slowly bled to death. Alcoholics usually die of internal bleeding, their insides hemorrhaging like a hemophiliac. I moved to the hard edge of the couch, with my hands in my lap, and looked down at my Mother.

The reason I found her in her apartment was because the five older children had scattered around the world. "Like milkweed seeds," Mother would slur, "with those lovely silk parachutes." My wife Elizabeth and I lived down the street from Mother, although Elizabeth says we should have gotten the hell out of Roxbury. Mother and I and Elizabeth are the only white faces left. Every Saturday afternoon for the last five years I've brought Mother TV Guide, boxes of donuts, cold cuts, bread, ginger ale. It has only been for the last couple of years that Mother actually talked to me; before that she just sat and looked out the window muttering to herself in a drunken stupor while I waited for an answer, and after an hour or two I'd get up and leave.

After a while I picked up the Boston Globe and read about the Red Sox and their usual September fall from grace. The pages cracked as I turned them. After a while I forgot about the smell. Mother always said you can't smell your own body odor, she was proving it now. If this had been a regular Saturday for us I would have read the paper to her, and then we would have chewed into pablum any new shred of news about the other children, not that there was ever much news. In the last few years I had begun to make up the news; it was our own private soap opera. Mother never once asked me about my wife, whom she called "The Wop." "The Wops," Mother had said when I told her Elizabeth and I were engaged, "are one step above The Niggers."

I read the rest of the paper. At one point I forgot Mother was dead on the floor and said, "have you heard Matthew got a promotion?" When you make up stories, anything can happen. The light turned yellow in the apartment, dust was drifting around the old furniture. My brothers and sisters watched me from faded photographs above the television. When it grew darker in the apartment, Mother's dentures glowed. The phone rang.

"Is she drunk?"

Elizabeth still believed Mother would quit someday, that there was still hope. I could barely move my mouth.

"No," I said. "She stopped."

"I knew she could do it!"

"It's true," I said. "She's dead sober."

"You did this," said Elizabeth. "Just by being with her every week, showing you care about her. She should appreciate you more."

"No," I said. "She should have appreciated you more."

"Old habits die hard."

"Yes."

"I'll see you when you get home," said Elizabeth. "Tell your Mother congratulations for me."

I must have made a choking sound.

"Are you O.K.?"

"Yes," I said. "I've got a few things to straighten out with Mother, then I'll be home."

I hung up, stood and closed the two venetian blinds. I was in total blackness, there was just the sound of my own breathing.

"Mother," I said. "Just tell me why you hated me so much."

The grin was invisible.

"Did you hear me, Mother?"

From her bedroom I heard the faint ticking of the clock.

I walked to Mother's bedroom, pushed open the door. Inside there was still enough light to see the trunk at the end of her bed. The trunk was locked; I had to break off the lock with a piece of granite mother had brought back from New Hampshire one summer. The whole lock apparatus broke off into my hand with the second blow. The trunk had belonged to my father when he was in the Army in Korea. My father had come back with a metal plate in his head. His brains had been left on ice at Inchon. My brother Michael and sister Peg remember that he used to keep a horseshoe shaped magnet in his pocket and would amuse them by hanging it off his temple. "It was about all Father could do," said Michael a long time ago. "So we never got tired of seeing him do it."

The diaries lay in a golden row. They fit snugly from one end of the trunk to the other. The rest of the trunk was empty. Father had bought the diaries for Mother when they were married, because he knew she liked to write everything down before going to sleep. There were 50 books originally, each embossed with the year. The diaries in the trunk covered the years 1953 1977. I was born in 1967, my father died four months before I was born. The unused books had sat on a shelf in the dining room, and each year Mother took down a new one on New Year's Day. We never saw any of the diaries again, but we knew the past year had been locked in the trunk.

The year 1966 was under my finger. I played with the binding, ran my finger up and down the gold leaf. When I raised my finger, gold dust sparkled on the tip. I turned and held it aloft in the faint light. In the distance I heard an ambulance. Farther away there was a gunshot. I plucked 1966 from the trunk and stood. The smell drifted in from the main room, so I closed the door to Mother's bedroom. Mother had three mattresses, and I settled myself atop this throne. I turned on the light at her bedside. The little oak side table was covered in used knotted tissues. There were a number of pill bottles, an assortment of glasses; one had a lemon slice in it growing a moldy green afro.

For years I had dreams about these diaries, their pages fluttering before me in the wind. When I was a teenager they were usually on fire, when I was a child they bled, recently they had been blank. Once my father, whom I knew only from photographs, held a diary out to me.

I let the diary fall open in my lap, and then adjusted the pillows behind my back. Mother had only the finest goose down pillows; it was one of her few luxuries. The diary fell open to a velvet marker. Mother's handwriting was rich and fluid, like black skywriting.



August 4, 1966

The milkman was outside the screen door when I was crying in the kitchen today. I told him to go away -- you never hear that nigger coming! Then I jumped up and I yelled down the alley to him to come back, and let him put the milk right in the fridge. The oldest McKay boy doesn't stand up straight, I told him if he doesn't watch it he'll end up in a brace from head to toe!

I flipped to October. Outside I heard a car backfire.

October 4, 1966

The doctors at the V.A. hospital were rude to me today. They wouldn't even look at me, even when I said it was my husband who did this to me, and that if I asked for money from him to go to a regular hospital he'd do it again. And he will! They said if I wasn't a veteran I would have to go to a regular hospital. At least he never touches my face.

October 15, 1966

I lay my head against Alfred's chest and got his white suit all wet. I must have cried for an hour, and he put his hand on my head and left it there while I cried. I am so afraid William will kill me one day. Alfred is so strong and I am so weak. Mother of God, pray for me.

I stopped reading, just lay with my hand on the diary and looked into space. For a long time I don't think I had a thought in my head, my brain was just frozen. It was as if I could have stepped from my body. The clock was ticking. Someone yelled in the street. My chest was moving up and down. The diary is under my hand. Mother is dead in the other room. I have a wife named Elizabeth Pucciarelli who I love more than life. Mother worked nights. She went to church every morning. She never showed the slightest interest in any man.

December 11, 1966
I'm in love.

December 12, 1966

Alfred got caught on his zipper, and I had to push him laughing out the door. William -- the Burgerman -- came into the kitchen still wearing his outfit. The door had never clicked shut, and it blew open with the wind. In my mind I watched Alfred in the snow, walking back to his truck. William just stood and watched me, all I could see were his eyes. It was so strange to see these two angry eyes in a big rubber hamburger. He isn't even able to get out of his suit without my help anymore! He has to walk home dressed like that now! Lucky for him it's only two streets away. He turned and left me, and I followed him into the dining room and said, "I wonder how you're going to beat me in that suit." He spun around and ran at me. He bounced off me and fell, hitting his face on the table. He retracted his arms, and tried to get out of the suit. He lost his eyeholes. He started to scream and flop around like a fish. Ann came downstairs and started to cry. I tried to get on top of him, calm him down, but he threw me off, and I hit my head against the wall. A plate fell down and hit me on the top of the head, and blood came into my eyes and I couldn't see. I jumped on him, and beat him, and then ran out the back door. I ran down the street looking for Alfred's truck in my stockinged feet in the snow.

The last job Father held was at a greasy dive two blocks from our house called Burgerman. He had lost a number of jobs after returning from Korea. Michael told me once that as time went by "his brain just shut down, like you turn lights off in a house." Sometimes he would just forget he had a job, and wander around Boston until the police brought him home. My uncle was a cop in those days, so the police were always kind to Father. "They'd ask him to hang the magnet off his head at the station," said Peg to me once. "Father was a big hit with the cops." I put 1966 away and took out 1967, the year of my birth. It was strange, but I could hear my brothers and sisters talking as if they were in the other room. A car went by and the lights slid across the wall of my Mother's room. I climbed back into her bed. I scanned the pages and then stopped.

February 8, 1967

Dr. Haggerty says I'm pregnant, as if a woman doesn't know. Poor Alfred.

Laying the diary down on my lap, I looked up at the yellow paint peeling off the ceiling. I had painted the rest of her apartment a few years back with Elizabeth's help, but Mother wouldn't let us in her bedroom. "A woman has to have some place private," said Mother. I had the feeling Mother was in her bedroom with me now. I turned a month ahead, the diary pages flipped as if Mother was riffling back and forth, and then it fell open as if she had pressed her hand flat across it.

March 28, 1967

I told Alfred he had to go away, that it was impossible for me to be with a black man. I told him I loved him. He told me it was a new age. I said we two aren't part of the new age. He said if he couldn't be with me he would die. I said it was just impossible.

March 29, 1967

Alfred came to the front door last night. Peg opened it and screamed, she just saw his white uniform, and no head. I ran from the kitchen and slammed it shut in his face. He kept calling my name through the door, over and over. The other children came downstairs, but I told them to go upstairs and stay in their rooms. I sent Peg up to her room, but she clung to my skirt. I tried to quiet him through the door. I told him I loved him. I said William would kill me if he found him here. Alfred went around the house, banging on the windows and screaming my name. I went to the kitchen, and Alfred tried to break down the back door, and then broke the window in the door, and reached around to open it. I took Peg and ran upstairs. I locked myself in the bathroom. Alfred banged on the door, threw himself against it, screamed he wanted to marry me. I heard William's voice and then the banging stopped and I heard them fighting in the hall. I came out and saw Alfred throw William against the wall. I begged Alfred to stop, he pushed me aside and beat William over the head with our family bible. I heard the police coming into the house, they beat on Alfred's back with their sticks, and dragged him down the stairs. My life is over.

The phone rang in the living room, the sound burned through the wall. It rang on and on, I knew it was Elizabeth. It was black outside, and she was worried about me walking home in the dark. The last time I was mugged I was beat over the head from behind with the leg bone of a cow. The police showed it to me in a large plastic bag in the police station. Elizabeth found me in the street that night, stopped the bleeding with her shirt, screamed until someone called the police. The phone rang again, I knew if I didn't answer it, Elizabeth would take her can of mace and go out on the streets to find me, but I couldn't move. It was like being in one of those dreams where you're frozen, and everything in you is just trying to move one inch. I was able to move my finger at last, and flipped the diary forward. The phone rang a third time.

April 11, 1967

William was killed today outside Burgerman's, run down by a car. They're calling it an accident, saying he wandered into the street by mistake, couldn't see well in his Burgerman outfit. But he told me he was going to do it. People are joking about it all over Boston.

I rolled over and turned out the light. I was born August 3rd, 1967. My mother had almost died giving birth to me, she was in bed for three months. I don't think she ever touched me, except when she was knocking me around. Her family had helped support us until she got back on our feet. When she drank she told my brothers and sisters, "I've never been the same person since the last one was born. He took the life out of me." They all blame me for her drinking, all except Peg. I remember Peg slapping Michael when he pinched my face and called me the black sheep of the family. She was slapping him and whispering, "Don't ever say that in this house."
I think I fell asleep. I heard a pounding on the front door. I thought it was Alfred. I jumped out of bed and ran out of Mother's bedroom. I tripped and fell in the hallway. I ran into the other room and turned on the light. I turned around and saw her grinning at me from the floor, as if she had just told me the punch line of a joke. I was the punch line. After years of waiting I now knew why she had beat me: I reminded her of my father Alfred; the man she had been screaming for in the hospital. My love, Elizabeth, was yelling my name through the door.
A month later, and we were packing on a Sunday to leave Roxbury. We were in the kitchen, wrapping plates in old pages of the Globe. Elizabeth was on a stool, taking down her china from the top shelf. She had inherited it from her Mother; it was white with gold trim. It was too precious to eat off. I saw her reach up, begin carefully to slide out a plate, and then turn her head quickly and look down at me.

I said, "I didn't say anything."

Elizabeth said, "Don't break my china."

We finished packing the china, and then Elizabeth asked me to go down to Purity Supreme and get some more boxes. As I walked back to the apartment I stopped at a traffic light, even though there was no traffic. I looked at the red hand on the stoplight, and then looked at an old black man who came up next to me. I swear he said to me, "nothing standing between me and your mother but that old red hand. No traffic coming, but she just wouldn't cross the street." I almost reached out and touched his back. At that moment I started to cry as if someone strong was shaking me by the shoulders, trying to wake me up; big heaving sobs. I don't know what my father Alfred looked like -- but I saw him clearly on that street corner in Roxbury, his black face breathing into mine -- it was him shaking me. He looked concerned and I cried for him, and for mother, my chin on my chest, the tears dropping to the cracked concrete sidewalk. It was the first time I had cried since I was young. I heard a young boy's voice gasping "Alfred" over and over. Alfred put his arms around me, held me the way a parent holds a child having a bad dream. Then he was gone and I continued walking, and came to a Baptist church -- and I thought as I looked up at the cross: if only they were my age, they might have had a life together, and all the rest of the shit could have been avoided. Only Elizabeth knew this about me: that under all my sick cynicism I still had a pocket of naive optimism. There were five silver haired black men standing on the steps of the church in jacket and tie. I stared at them until one said to me, "you lost, son?" "Sorry, no," I said. "I live here." I must have looked absurd to them: I had two boxes under both arms, and a box hanging from the back of my head. When I got back to our apartment, the door was wide open and my wife Elizabeth was gone. I sat down among the boxes, facing the open door and empty hallway, and waited until it was too dark to see.


Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review





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