by Theodore Wheeler
When he saw the flat-bed trailer parked at the curb in front of his mother’s house, Scott Ritter’s stomach sank. Papier-mâché sombreros and dozens of novelty Mexican flags were packed on a trailer at the curb, along with snow cone and cotton candy machines. On the side of the trailer was a hand-lettered sign that read M&M Ministries: Games, Music, Choirs. Scott crouched next to the sign, pinching the wire frames of his glasses to make sure he was reading it right, then looked at the ad again. Petting zoo, puppies, and story-telling. Silent auction. Auditions for cherub, youth, and adult choirs. Cinco de Mayo floats!
“Oh, God,” he thought, straightening to read the sign again. He took the newspaper clipping from his pocket. A man at work had shown the classified ad to him. “Listen to this,” the co-worker said. “Christ Centered Mobile Ministries. Win prizes or C.C. Bucks. Free concert. Baby items, bicycles, books, clowns and clothing. Coloring contests.” Scott had laughed himself, reading derisively, “BYOT: bring your own trike!”
His mother lived in an old neighborhood near downtown Omaha, just north of Leavenworth Street. The two-story, red brick house sat on a small hill in a series of increasingly larger ones that began at the river. Its trim was forest green, although white and brown showed through where later coats failed to cover. The house was obscured by an overgrown Washington hawthorn on one side, which Scott had planted with his father years ago, and juniper shrubs on the other. This is where he’d grown up. The neighborhood was a peculiarly urban creation. Venerable family homes with well-loved gardens sat next to retrofitted apartments packed with poor college kids and illegals. The apartment buildings were put up in the seventies as low-income real estate projects, when most of the old families were leaving the inner city. Just a few of the old homes survived now, those lived in by people like Scott’s mother Peggy, who seemed to have been here forever.
The park across the street had changed quite a bit since Scott was last here. The city had made it a symbol of urban renewal, another item he’d seen in the newspaper, something brand-new in a run-down neighborhood. Tennis courts filled in the caesura of trees along with a playground and horseshoe pit. High school kids practiced their backhands on the courts and a few old men tossed horseshoes, cheering with every clinking ringer. Scott could see this from where he stood, and he hoped it was possible to come to peace with this place. It was all bad when he lived here as a boy, a coalition of the depraved and Godless that caused him to question the power of redemption. But maybe the new tennis courts proved that change was possible.
Scott was a slender man in Dockers slacks, and he took long steps around some broken glass on the sidewalk when he decided to head inside. His head was down, so it surprised him when there was a middle-aged black man sitting on the bottom step of his mother’s stoop. He almost walked right into the man—somehow Scott hadn’t seen him, and he thought maybe the man had snuck up on him.
The man was lanky and dark, like the Sudanese Scott met while on mission to Africa. He wore a red stocking cap and a gray suit jacket with a tee shirt underneath. He sipped from a big beer wrapped in a paper sack. It shocked Scott to see this in front of his mother’s house, the man with a scattered beard, spillover from the park, guzzling an afternoon beer. With that little paper sack, as if he could be drinking anything else but cheap swill from a thirty-two ounce can. Scott stared in disbelief as the man turned to face him. Neither of them said a word. The man’s expression was indecipherable.
Scott pushed open his mother’s front door when he reached the top of the stoop. A sign in the window directed that he let himself in. The door’s unlocked, it read. M&M Bake Sale.
“Mom,” he shouted, slamming the door behind him. “Is everything okay?” He fumbled with the chain latch, watching the man through the blinds as he locked the door, and then tore the sign from the window.
“I’m standing right here.” Peggy emerged from the kitchen with a mixing bowl in her hands. “You’ll scare me half to death, screaming like that.”
“What’s going on?”
“What does it look like,” Peggy said, hugging Scott with her free arm. She squeezed him tight, her head pressed against his chest. “It’s a bake sale.”
It was true, Scott could see that, curling around his mother’s embrace to look into the kitchen. There were racks of cookies cooling, pink boxes stacked four high, german chocolate and lemon cream written on the side in magic marker. There was a cash tray on the counter, a few scrawny bills crumpled together. Most of the cabinet doors were left open and Scott hurried to close them.
“Doesn’t it smell great in here, Scottie?”
“It does,” he admitted, snooping around the house. The living room was cluttered with stacks of magazines and boxes filled with clothes. In one corner of the dining room, dozens of second-hand toys were piled into a clumsy mess. There were posters tacked to the wall, hand-painted signs advertising events for Dia de los Muertos and the upcoming Cinco de Mayo Parade. He’d never seen these rooms in such disarray.
Peggy lived alone in the house, which she’d rented for over thirty years. Her real name was Pelageya, but no one called her that. She’d supported herself for a long time now, with the small pension she received for the decades she worked as a lunch lady at a local Catholic school, and with what insurance money remained from when her Lithuanian parents died in a car wreck. This before Scott was born, before she’d married Frank even.
“It makes everyone feel good to smell baking,” she said, busy in the kitchen. Peggy was the kind of person who owned her smiles, a large woman, layered thickly from years of eating heavy-battered food and frosted pastries. “It’s nice to have my boy back in the house,” she said. “I could just cry!”
“Why are you baking?” Scott drifted into the kitchen, stepping around sacks of flour and empty boxes. “Who’s having a bake sale?”
“Don’t be simple,” she said. Her voice was scratched and whiny from years of smoking. “It’s my bake sale.”
Scott put his arm around his mother and walked her to the couch, but as he bent to clear a pile of newspaper from the sofa, a collection of her classified ads, Peggy dashed to the kitchen to fetch cookies.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Scott said after she returned, a teacup balanced on his knee. He took a bite of warm cookie and allowed the oatmeal and sugar to dissolve on his tongue before he continued. “I don’t think you should be living alone anymore.”
“Oh, that’s nonsense.” She topped off her glass of Diet Coke and then set the bottle on the coffee table uncapped. “You’re trying to pull one over on me.”
“I read the newspaper, Mom. The evidence is right in the classifieds.” Scott lifted a handful of the papers to prove what he said. “These crazy ads. They are the reason you shouldn’t be living alone.”
“That’s my business, Scottie, my purpose in life. M&M Mobile Ministries. What I’ve dreamt of doing.”
Scott rose to his feet, put his tea on the table and laid aside the half-eaten cookie. He crossed the room and rifled through a box of old calendars.
“I’m not sure why you’re doing this, but those ads aren’t going to bring anyone here. People don’t join choirs they read about in the classifieds. They won’t donate money to a lady running a charity out of her house. It sounds like a scam.”
“Oh, posh. I want to help people. Be someone kids can look up to. I want to help the little Mexicans from the school. They’ll be disappointed if the parade is cancelled.”
Scott tilted a box of worn out women’s shoes, but dropped it in disgust after seeing inside. Many of the pumps had broken heels, some of the leather had been eaten by mice.
“Well, what do you need that trailer for?”
“It’s M&M Mobile Ministries,” she said sarcastically. “The first M is for mobile.”
“You should be using that trailer to take all this shit to the dump.”
“Oh, Scottie. Don’t talk that way.” Peggy was always surprised when he swore, like something evil had been revealed. She picked up their dishes and carried them to the kitchen. He followed her, turning off the faucet as she rinsed the saucers.
“Scott.” She took a step back from the sink. “God told me to do this in a dream.”
Scott looked at his mother sadly. She was a round old woman, her black hair thinning at the crown of her head so that the scalp showed through.
“Put all that aside. Just for a minute. Say that God doesn’t want you to put on a parade for Mexicans. How can you keep living here? How do you get up and down those stairs? Who changes your oil? Who shovels the snow?”
“Tom does all that for me.”
“Who’s Tom?” Scott rushed out of the room and pointed at the door. He was shouting suddenly, and his anger surprised him. “Is Tom that one? That one getting drunk outside?”
He looked out the window but the man was gone. It was clear that Scott wasn’t of this place anymore, he knew this. It was normal for people to hang out on the streets here, neighborhood men who lived in a slum so toxic that they could only take being home after midnight. In Scott’s subdivision, if a strange man was sitting on a stoop drinking beer, someone would call the cops.
“What are you talking about?” Peggy asked. She followed Scott to the entry room. “Tom works for the landlord. He lives around the corner.”
Scott turned to his mother, his hands on her shoulders. He looked into her eyes and nearly embraced her, she was so earnest.
“You mean,” he asked, “Tom isn’t that man outside?”
“I’m doing good things. I’m making a difference. Don’t stop me now.”
Scott took it upon himself to sort through his mother’s basement, intent on clearing out the junk. It wasn’t going to be an easy job. As cluttered as the main floor was, the basement was even worse. The tool bench was stacked to the windows with household machinery, box fans, electric razors, televisions that no longer worked. There were bicycle frames and other pieces of metal in the coal room, bent tetherball poles and rusty car parts, dozens of boxes that held who knows what, saggy and gray from years of useless burden.
He unpacked his childhood clothing first, looking for anything that might be worth keeping. Theme-park tee shirts from church trips, a purple jersey from his JV basketball team. He found a pile of baby clothes in a bassinette, its white cardboard wilting with mildew. There were photographs of him in goofy-smile poses, his father laughing beside him, scissoring a cigarette between his fingers or palming a highball. Scott had been such an earnest boy, eager to please. He was a Boy Scout, his hair parted down the middle, and he had freckles. The polar opposite of his father.
Frank Ritter had died of a heart attack more than a decade earlier. In his final years, it was his standard routine to scream out that he couldn’t breathe, bent double and hyperventilating, even though there was probably nothing wrong with him. It was a regular performance, Frank aping Redd Foxx having the big one, clutching his chest in pantomime of a heart attack. He screamed from the upstairs bedroom and Peggy responded from the kitchen, “Shut up! I know you’re faking it!” She ignored his calls for more than ninety minutes the day he finally wasn’t faking. He was in the upstairs room where he sequestered himself, the windows shaded with yellowed newsprint, crying out for mercy he wasn’t destined to receive.
When Scott was little, Peggy wanted so badly for him to be a perfect little boy, a Norman Rockwell facsimile with a gap-toothed smile and flawless plaid outfits. They made baby talk with each other until he was thirteen and she picked out his clothes until he was sixteen. She walked him to school and back every day, to defend him loudly against any kid who tried to bully him. Peggy shot photos of Scott before the first day of school each fall, his hair Brylcreemed, in a shabby gray suit with a black sweater underneath. She obsessed over his grades and made sure the two of them attended mass every Sunday.
“You’re going to make him soft,” Frank would cringe, pouring himself a cocktail in the kitchen before trudging back upstairs. Frank had been in the military, and even though he was discharged dishonorably, he often spoke of the benefits of discipline, of how the world needed hard men. Frank had a rough disposition, a muscular shortness refined by the hard labor of his youth. But he also had small hands, uncalloused and hairy. It was something that shamed him. As a boy, Scott believed that the army didn’t allow men with diminutive hands to remain in the military—that this was the reason Frank had been removed from service.
If it wasn’t for a coalition of mentors who reached out to Scott—youth pastors, Scout leaders, concerned teachers—who knows how he would have ended up. The neighborhood was rampant with homosexuality and a litany of other urban depravities in those days. Scott thanked God he’d gotten out, that he went off to an Evangelical college and found a good job as an actuary at a west Omaha insurance corporation. It was a miracle he’d made it as far as he had. Scott often reminded himself this. He was single, active in the adult ministries program at his church, and owned a reasonable house in a nice subdivision. It was a good life, one that wasn’t imaginable when he was a child. He drove a Lexus.
Sifting through the basement clutter, he came to a box labeled Frank’s Upstairs Closet. He tore open the top of the box, ripped off the tabs, and then fumbled a stack of green-paged paperbacks to the floor. Scott knew his father was a writer of sorts, but he’d never seen any of his work. Small film canisters clanked on the concrete too. They were labeled by studios Scott had never heard of before, Coccyx Motion Picture Company and Underbelly Films.
These artifacts didn’t surprise Scott, however. He understood that his father was a deeply disturbed man, emotionally scarred from living in the Oklahoma bush country during the depression. There were dark stories there that Frank never told. He was gone most nights, huddled in the backroom of a smut theater on Leavenworth Street, and he studied dirty magazines during the day. Growing up, Scott didn’t understand what kind of job his father had, but he knew it was different from those the other fathers worked—the barbers, plumbers, and garbage men of their neighborhood—because Frank’s work had to remain hidden. While other men flipped through Sports Illustrated and watched the Dick Van Dyke show in their family rooms, Frank studied Raped in the Grass and The Perverts in his smoky upstairs den. These were things Scott found out from his father’s acquaintances during the wake. Frank wrote underground pulp novels and short stories in the lurid style of B-movies, camp counselors fooling around, cheerleader gangbangs and the like, a genre known as outré.
Scott had seen his father’s magazines before, of course, so he wasn’t surprised. That room upstairs held too much intrigue for a young boy to leave alone, especially after Peggy made him to promise to not even open the door to his father’s office. Scott was a little boy then, eight or nine, and didn’t understand what he was looking at. He examined the women, their tan lines, the alien muffs that blossomed below their belly buttons, the impossibly large nipples, the inside-out flesh sliming between their legs. His little fingers stuck to the pages, his nose was confused by the gym locker smell. And the men in the magazines confounded him even more. He couldn’t bring himself to look at them, knowing that this was particularly wrong, to let his gaze linger on the purplish members lumbering out of open zippers. It was his misunderstanding that shamed him. He was a little boy.
He would relive that seedy event dozens of times growing up, his stomach rising in sick anticipation as he invaded his father’s stash. Scott was a criminal for doing this. He’d sneak into that low-light room whenever he could in high school, but it wasn’t anything he ever indulged in later, as an adult. He had too much self-respect for that, too much dignity.
There were several boxes of this stuff Scott needed to dispose of, hundreds of paperbacks and dirty calendars autographed by the pinups. Scott cracked the binding on a few of them, but he didn’t really want to see what lurked in the perverted mind of Frank Ritter. It made him sick remembering what he already knew.
“Scott!” Peggy screamed as she clamored down the basement steps. “Don’t look at those! They belonged to your father! They’re his business papers!”
“You don’t have to lie,” Scott said. He picked up a handful of the paperbacks. “I can see what’s here. Dirty books. Skin flicks.”
“Don’t talk like that. It’s stuff he needed for work.” She picked up what Scott dumped on the floor, clumsily repacking the books into their boxes. She tried to hide them from him, folding the calendars over to cover the nudity. “We tried to raise you right. Didn’t I sacrifice? Didn’t I do everything possible to make you the man you are today?”
“This smut should be destroyed. Why do you hang on to it?” Scott cast more books to the floor. All around them were photos of buxom women coyly revealing their tan lines. “What if someone found this stuff? What would they think about us then?”
“Let’s go to the kitchen. I can make a late lunch.”
“No,” Scott said. “I want you to tell me what kind of man Dad was. You can say it. What kind of bastard would—”
Peggy slapped him across the cheek, squealing at the sudden sound of her hand hitting his face.
“Oh! I didn’t mean to.”
Scott backed over his father’s books. He kicked a pile of them toward the floor drain then turned away from his shaking mother. This was a scene he’d rehearsed in his mind before, but he never expected her to slap him.
“You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“You didn’t mean it,” Scott said. “You didn’t mean to.”
Peggy walked to her son, put her hands on him. “Leave this alone. I don’t want to be rid of it yet. I know what it is.”
“Sure,” Scott said. He turned his back and walked to the stairs. “It’s your business.”
He could hear his mother coming up the stairs behind him, how she hesitated on each step, the clomp-clomp of her feet hitting the riser, then a phlegm-heavy breath. She would be at the top step soon, and Scott was standing at the kitchen sink, soft soap in his hands, the water turned off because he was listening to her climb the stairs.
His hands were filthy from handling the old paperbacks, they needed to be washed, but Scott couldn’t stand there anymore. He hurried past the basement stairs and then out the front door, down the steps to his car. He fumbled with his keys before making it inside, the doors locked, one hand gripping the steering wheel, a film of soap and grime on his skin, while the other pulled his cell phone from the center console. He was going to call his pastor. He needed help figuring out what to do, but he wanted to catch his breath before dumping this on somebody else.
Scott wanted to believe that everything would work out for his mother. With an adjustment to her medication, or a nurse to keep track of her, she would stop placing classified ads and clear out the house. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that she’d lost it. Peggy had always been odd, shrill and emotional, over-protective and obsessive. The trunk of her car was usually full of junk—she collected scrap metal—so the trailer really wasn’t much of a surprise. Sometimes, when Scott was a boy, she’d stayed up overnight to clean house, scrubbing the porch steps and storm windows at 3 am. She had manic phases that lasted days, sometimes weeks, brought on by the amphetamines she took to keep her weight down. She once clawed Frank’s face when he came home late from the theater.
But these were just oddities. These facts didn’t add up to the kind of senility that the classified ads suggested. She was only in her late sixties. It was still possible that things would work out fine. Scott wanted to believe this.
He was a rational person, after all. It was just that being home made him panic. He’d moved on. He’d left the weirdness of his youth behind. It wasn’t fair that his co-workers might discover these things about him in the newspaper. If they knew his mother claimed to have visions of God it would ruin all the cachet Scott had built in life, in his real life, the one that started the very second he moved out of this house. And if his friends knew about Peggy, it would only be a matter of time before they found out about Frank, the weirdo writer, the dishonorably discharged fairy who spent most of his bizarre life locked in an upstairs bedroom committing his wet dreams to paper. And if his friends at work knew about his father—if his church somehow found out—then it would be all over for Scott. All he wanted was to have his own life, to go on without being weighed down by the oddity of others, to be of and from nothing and no one.
Scott was doing what he was supposed to be doing. He was in the car. He was going to call his pastor to discuss the situation.
But then Peggy followed him outside. She waddled down the steps, holding to the metal hand rail. Then she was tapping on his window, on the passenger side, and he had to let her in the car.
“You shouldn’t be living alone,” he said. “There’s assisted living. There are condos—”
“I already told you. I don’t want to move. The neighborhood needs me.”
“Mom, you can’t afford—”
“That’s the end of it. Help me inside and I’ll make some tea. There are more cookies.”
“I don’t want any,” Scott said, his fists balled on the wheel. “We need to talk about this.”
They didn’t look at each other when they spoke, but stared out at the street and listened to the pulse of tennis balls bouncing on the hard surface of the courts in the park below. Scott wanted to feel good, he did. But there was too much bad voodoo here, too much tied to these landmarks. He looked past his mother back to the house, at the steps where his father fell down drunk on the Fourth of July, 1977. Beside them were the yews Frank pissed on during the evenings he drank outside. There was the upstairs office, its windows still shaded with yellow newspaper, and the gloomy rooms where his mother sloshed soapy buckets in the evening, chewing her teeth.
“This is my home,” Peggy said. “I pay the rent. I make the bed. Why’s it now you think I’m not to be trusted? It’s our home, Scottie.”
“I’m a reasonable man,” he said. His voice cracked with tension. He couldn’t make it stop doing that. “You should listen to what I tell you. I don’t understand why you’re so stubborn about this. You’re a renter, okay? You don’t even own this house.”
“But this is my home,” she repeated.
Scott could feel how his hair had come loose from its combed position. It stood off his head, stringy with sweat.
“You don’t listen to me,” he said. The neighborhood man with the beer in a sack was pressed against the fence, down the block. He was watching the tennis players, a team of girls in purple shorts from Central High School.
“I’m sorry,” Peggy whispered. She sat perfectly still, bent meekly over her lap as if she was protecting it. Her face looked tired and pale, the skin around her eyes and mouth smoothing out without a smile to bunch them together. Her dark eyes were revealed, distant and strained.
“I just want people to know I’m a good person. That I’ve done good things in my life. But I’ll do what you want me to.”
Scott leaned over the center console and kissed the top of her head. “I want things to be better. But no more ministries.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’ll do whatever you want. Just come inside right now. The stove is on and I need to check it. I’m making us tea.”
Peggy fiddled with the knobs until the blue flames puffed out beneath the pot. She went to the cabinets above the sink and pulled down the Easter tin she kept her tea in. The tin depicted bright white and lavender rabbits at play in a golden field of forsythia. She poured steaming water into her China cups, clamped strainers around the tea bags and let them steep.
In the corner of the room, there was a jumble of broken china. These were his mother’s plates from Vilnius, her dessert platters, swept carefully into the corner opposite the trash can, as if they could be reassembled. Peggy dragged a chair into the kitchen, next to his, and settled into the seat.
Scott ate another cookie when she offered him one and looked away. Above the sink, he saw flattened coffee cans, antique and rusty, tacked to the inside of the cabinet doors. This was something Frank had done, making odd use of the scavenged metal Peggy brought home. The plaster around the faucet was sagging, heavy from steam and grease. Scott thought of how he hadn’t yet washed his hands. A black mildewy gum dried on his cuticles. There was dust on his wrists and forearms, and it made his arms itch inside his shirtsleeves, in places he couldn’t reach.
by Theodore Wheeler