Last night Columbo asked if I'd noticed the way my mother stands in the doorway. "She always does it," he said in that squinty way he has, not looking you right in the eye. I didn't answer him, but I've noticed the way she usually stands there, a dish cloth in one hand drying the other one while staring at me. I don't need to look to know how she shakes her head from one side to the other and pulls those mouth muscles down. She doesn't have to speak. I know. And I don't need Columbo reminding me. What does he think I'm watching him for if not to avoid talking to her?
I changed the channel. Let his ratings drop, let them cancel him. Lately he hasn't done a thing for me.
When we first met, I thought he would leave his wife for me. He talked about her all the time, but he made her sound so dull and bourgeois, a real cramp in his style. The way he said it made me believe he soon would grow tired of her. But that was years ago and I realize Columbo just says what you want him to say. Don't be mistaken though; there's an intelligence at work. He isn't just the private eye; he doesn't just gather information and use it for one purpose alone.
When I tried talking to him, he always avoided my questions. He was polite, but he never told me anything. I didn't realize until much too late. Late in the middle of the night when it was just old movies and long local TV commercials and I noticed he'd avoided me again. Here I was debating whether I needed some new medication, or a better exercise program, or non-stick cooking pans, or Ginzu knives. And he was home with her.
He's not the first to start up a dialogue from the screen. But he is the first to refer to her. Up till he mentioned her, I thought they didn't really know who I was. Perhaps they could only see me and not my room, or maybe I was just the representative viewer and not more specifically defined. Those "Friends" girls often used to smile perkily and congratulate me on choosing a good night to watch. What's her head, Jennifer Aniston, was always sweet and encouraging in a generic kind of way. She didn't mind I might be in love with Ross too; I wasn't a threat to her. But it was Dr. Ross I really wanted, even though he took care of kids and not grown-ups and even though he got to be in movies instead of television. That was years ago -- during my adolescence at least in television terms. I had just lost my job as a receptionist for reasons I won't go into. I was biding my time and gathering strength.
My father died that spring and I moved back with Mom because I was broke and she was lonely. That year the NBC Thursday night line-up was unbeatable. Cable wasn't really much of an issue yet, especially in Brooklyn where politics and strange goings on made it so cable came later than any other place in the whole country.
No one had spoken to me since the tall pale one at the Industrial and Technical University. Then Dr. Ross did. But he never connected to me the way Columbo did. Besides, Columbo being somewhat shabby and not too polished seemed more my speed. And he made it sound like he was leaving her.
Mom stands there, I know. I don't need him around to point it out. I hate the way he asks those questions, always needling and pretending he's innocent, acting like he doesn't really know, as if he just happened to see her there. "Don't mind me," he says, "But I can't help noticing she's standing there not watching the TV. She's watching you watch it. Don't you think that's at all strange?"
I don't think he has a right to judge her like that. Of course she stands there in the doorway. Halfway between the kitchen and the living room is where she's always been. Her eyes move across everything looking for dust, scratches, slouching, crumbs, sins, lint, and feet on furniture. She checks to see if my hair has been combed; she tries to estimate my weight. Eventually she will ask me if there have been calls about any jobs. As if I wouldn't tell her. As if I got a job and for some reason I was keeping it from her. Always questioning. Never saying what she really means.
"Don't you think you'd meet a nice man if you got a job?"
"No ma," I tell her. "No ma, I don't think I'll meet anyone at any stupid company that would ever hire me. I think I'll meet black bike messengers and Xerox repair men."
She asks more of those questions which aren't really questions at all. "You know I won't be alive for ever, and what are you going to do then? You really ought to pay more attention to me," she says. "I am your mother. You used to live inside me and now here you are outside of me and all you do is watch television day and night, night and day. Sometimes I wonder why I went through labor at all."
"Goodbye, Columbo," I say and turn off the television and she is happy and makes some tea. She has it all arranged. The tea's on a tin tray with a picture of Niagara Falls, alongside the plate of mallomars which are very messy to eat and very very sweet.
About the author:
Deirdre Day-MacLeod has written about Britney Spears' bellybutton and is considered and expert on the "omphalos" in Portugal. She has also written about time management for optometrists, laundry on nuclear submarines for launderers, salty snacks, dog food, Mexico, music reviews, interviews with post-adolescent rock and rollers, the Erie canal, autobiographies of people who are not her, infanticide in 19th Century England, hair care products, nudity in public spaces, mothers who try too hard, infanticide in 20th century United States, bread products, things to do with children (other than killing them), Barbie dolls and more. In between wrote an novel (as yet unpublished) and is completing a book of stories, "Better Sex More Often." Her work has appeared in "Taint," "Slow Trains," and she writes about music for Pop Matters and others.