Jim Tucker only slept with his mother, June, once but all the same, that's where the problem started. It was a mess. Afterward, he left his job as a paramedic in Seattle and moved to Dallas. What else could he do? In Dallas, he got a job and a girlfriend, Eve, who was nothing like his mother. His new job was distributing decals of Chinese cartoon characters—Happy Buck, a goggle-eyed moose, and Campo, his little mouse buddy. They were huge in Asia and the company was gunning for the American market now. Jim Tucker would be part of the next tween marketing phenomenon. He's still a good son, even from Dallas. When he phones June five days in a row and she doesn't pick up, he texts Molly, his twin sister, who immediately calls to tell him that June's away, visiting a friend. The way she said "friend," he knew there was a word behind the word.
"She met him on Christian Mingle. His name's Matty. You might as well know."
"What, an online thing? Are you sure?" He'd seen the ads on TV, the drifty music and color-coordinated couples. His mother had only bought a computer a year ago and still phoned him to walk her through uploading pictures off her camera.
"He flew in to see her last month. I met him, he's great. A lot like Dad, in a weird way."
"So why didn't anyone tell me?" He let her Dad comment pass, since it was too ridiculous to even acknowledge.
"She's been lonely a while, Jim," said Molly. "You need to understand."
As if he didn't.
His mother calls him the next day, full of apologies. She'd been thoughtless, too preoccupied with other things. He visualizes her in her big, yellow kitchen, phone clamped between ear and shoulder. Behind her, the wall clock in the shape of a black cat, eyes blinking maniacally with the seconds, tail swinging. Forever seven minutes slow, a hairline crack on the left where he'd knocked it to the floor that one time and never told her.
Other things, that's what she says. What other things, he wants to know?
"I thought Molly told you, sweetheart. I have a—gentleman friend. He's retired, like me. He's the fix-it man for the condo association where he lives, to get a break on the HOAs, isn't that smart?"
That word again. Friend. He's supposed to play his part, ask the guy's name, age, God knows what else, his shoe size? His mother needs his approval to pocket and then forget, like the gold watch she hadn't taken off in forty years but which didn't stop her from being late to everything. It was just the same when her creaky Corolla gave out and she called him, seeking instruction. He'd spent hours researching good, used cars in her area, only to find out that she'd bought a flashy red Smart car that same day, right off the lot, wretchedly overpriced.
Well, he isn't going to give her what she wants.
"Jimmy? Are you still there?"
"Molly says he's like Dad."
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe in his coloring a little. I never thought about it." Her voice upped a pitch. "He's got the same knack with kitchen gadgets. You should see him work a cheese grater."
That night he says to Eve, "The problem is she's got decent liquidity and she's naïve. Bad combination. She's an easy mark, I know it." They are side by side in the dark, holding hands like they do every night before they went to sleep.
"I'm sure she's had offers. She's very attractive, your mother. Good hair, symmetrical ears. You got to give her credit. I'd fall for her if I wasn't already with her son."
"That's not what I mean. She's the prey."
"You know what I think?" Eve turns on her side. "I think you're jealous."
He loves Eve because she's nothing like June. He'd met her at a neighborhood backgammon tournament. She lingered at his table then pulled up a chair to watch. At the periphery of his vision, tanned thighs, heart-stopping under a lime green hem. She murmured comments that needled him at first then went straight to his prick. When he lost, she brought him a crantini.
"You lived with your mother for how long?" Eve had asked, that first night, when she sat across from him in her lime green dress.
"Until a year ago. My entire laugh." That's what he said—"laugh," instead of "life." Talk about a Freudian slip—it made him reel but he hid it and just sipped his crantini.
"Why didn't you move out before? You're what, forty?"
"Thirty-five, actually. They've been hard years."
"Oh, so you've like been taking care of her? Is she an invalid?"
"In a manner of speaking. Physically she's fine but mentally and emotionally, that's a whole different story."
"So who's looking after her now?" Eve had been edging closer and closer and now she was leaning on the armrest of his chair so that he could feel her breath moving across the skin of his hand when he lifted his glass to drink.
"My sister Molly is nearby. I gave her copies of all the keys and passwords, just in case."
"Gosh!" Eve sat back in her chair. "Your mother is really lucky to have you."
What he didn't tell her was that living at home with his mother, although turbulent at times, was also highly convenient. She made his favorite pistachio cupcakes, starched and ironed his sheets so when he slid into bed it was like ice cracking, watched reruns of Star Trek with him, even though he had to explain the plot. She'd sit beside him on the couch and work a Sudoku or crochet a baby afghan, glancing over her half-glasses at the TV. It was enjoyable, feeling the warmth of her thigh alongside his own. Each whirling atom in the cosmos would take a breather, let a little peace seep through. It was a great wrench to leave, to come to Dallas, and he wouldn't have if it hadn't been for what happened.
June had come down with a raging influenza, even though it was the month of June, her namesake, and who gets the flu in June? She'd propped herself up on the couch with a magnifying glass, working a 1,000 piece puzzle of six bug-eyed kittens which was supposed to be entered in some contest at St. Jude's hospital. There was a deadline, only the fever was blurring her vision and she kept having to lay down and then she'd fall asleep for a few minutes, only to wake up and heave herself back to the puzzle. When Jim got home after his shift, he made her go to bed, properly, in her own queen-sized bed in her own mauve bedroom.
"It's got to be done," she murmured as he rolled her onto the striped flannel sheets and pulled up the rose quilt.
"Just sleep, okay?" And he went back to the living room and sat down in front of the coffee table upon which the puzzle was scattered like candy corn. He worked it for four hours straight and when he stood up, his back was locked in a question mark. The kittens stared out at him with eyes like potholes. "Victory," he told them and went to check on his mother.
Later, he would blame the hypnotic whirl of the kittens' eyes, the drone of CNN, the lack of airflow, the gas fireplace. The bottom line is that he placed his hand on her forehead and found the fever gone, and the bed looked so inviting, and his mother so tranquil that he got in beside her. All he remembers is peace, like a towel warm from the dryer draped over him, knots untying somewhere deep inside. He'd dropped off immediately, coming to ten hours later when Molly and her twelve-year-old son Simon dropped by. Molly had let herself in with her key and followed the silence to June's bedroom.
"Good God," she'd said in the doorway.
"Gross!" Simon said exultantly. Molly had clapped her hand over his eyes and shoved him out of the room.
Jim remembers staggering to his feet, his mother still softly snoring, the bed warmth falling away from him. "I'm fully dressed, for Christ's sake. Nothing happened, what'd you think?" He was wrong. He'd crawled into bed fully dressed but sometime in the night, in the throes of sticky dreams, he'd shed his underwear and now the cold air hit his belly and groin. But his sister was already gone, the slam of the door jarring through the house, the whine of her car whirling out of the driveway, knocking over the recycling bin and spinning out three years' worth of old Good Housekeeping magazines which Jim had cleaned out of the basement.
When he thinks about it now, the memory makes him feel (1) slightly nauseated, like the time when he was a boy and his father made him swallow a tiny piece of raw quahog, and (2) suddenly empty-handed. But nothing happened; it wasn't sleeping with someone, the way people used the term now. It was the hidden word behind the word that everyone except his mother believed, which, ironically, brought him even closer to her. At the same time he wanted to be rid of her like soiled laundry, like the underpants he'd taken off in the night and then carried, later, out to the garbage can, sinking it into damp mounds of egg shells and kitty litter. The next week, Jim was a on a flight to Dallas, Happy Buck and Campo waving him in.
He's never even bothered to mention it to Eve.
Now his mother has Matthew McMartin. The Christian Mingle match. Matty, she calls him, which sounds like a small-time Depression-era politician, with a striped vest, vast gut, and half-chewed cigar. June emails a picture and he's disappointed that Matty looks more like a cheerful plumber than anything else. "Friendly" is how Eve describes him, before Jim deletes the picture. There is news: Matty had sold his condo in Scottsdale and moved to Seattle, to June's place. His mother sends another email right after that, announcing they'd set a date! We're thinking around the end of August and, of course, want you and Eve to be here to share our joy!!
His first impulse is to boycott the wedding.
"What would that accomplish, besides making you look like a spoiled prick?" asks Eve.
His own email response has no exclamations. Spell-checks it twice, gets out Roget's for synonyms for gigolo (Casanova, Don Juan, inamorato, ladies' man, lady-killer) and gold-digger (there aren't any). It's obvious to him what is happening, but not to anyone else, especially not to June. His mother is oblivious to the peril that lays in wait for her, and he doesn't know how to prevent the wreckage.
After pressing send, he goes to the storage room to rummage through boxes until he finds one full of photo albums. He was ten years old and they'd dug clams, he and his father, on their haunches, pawing through blackened sand. His father had wormed his arm into the muck and pulled out a quahog as big as brick. Jim watched him slide his knife between the edges and break it open to reveal insides like pale liquidy rubber. His father made him take a piece, then Jim watched him swallow the rest in a single gulp. They'd all posed for a family picture, only June wouldn't stop talking. It was the only time he'd seen his dad blow up at his mother, and he wants to be back there, hearing them fight, hearing his father tell her to shut the fuck up. He remembers—his father's arms draped around him, solid as a wall, unsmiling and furious and silent, and his mother, just the same, for once in her life.
Only, when he finally finds the right album, he has it wrong. It's June who has her arms around him and Molly, and she's smiling at the camera, squinting in the crazy California sunlight. His father's in mid-sentence and Jim, leaning into the faded image, hears him again, telling him to look sharp and not close his eyes.
He lands in Seattle at five, picks up his rental car, and heads to his hotel. He's by himself, since Eve couldn't get time off from the restaurant. June has arranged for all of them—her and Matty, him, Molly and Simon—to go bike riding. When she'd emailed the idea to him, he'd refused at first, but Eve made him see the wisdom in it.
"No one will be fumbling for conversation because you'll be too busy riding. Everyone can put space around themselves. Total de-escalation. Your mom's thinking of Matty, too. He's probably even more nervous than you."
"He should be."
"Oh, Jimmy. Don't be like that." Eve had put her arms around him. "I wish I was coming. I'd give anything to see this."
At the hotel, he changes into his jersey and shorts, his new cycling shoes. He's brought his own helmet but leaves it at the hotel. What kind of ride would it be? His mother would get winded after a ten-minute walk and Matty probably logged more hours on a couch than a bike. They are meeting at the bike rental shop, a block or two from the Burke-Gilman trail, a broad, paved ribbon along the evergreen shore of Lake Washington. He will keep his face carefully composed when he meets Matty McMartin. His mouth will be relaxed, his eyes calm, stoic even, his jaw set, not like steel but more like pudding left in the fridge uncovered, the way his mother always handled uneaten food. He wonders how Matt puts up with it. Matty.
It is starting to rain, very lightly, when he arrives at the bike shop. Molly is waiting out front and gives him a quick hug. Simon, tall and shy, accepts a slap-on-the-back hug but keeps his distance. Then his mother is in front of him, in a pink jacket, hugging him fervently.
"Come meet him," she whispers.
"Hi, Jim," says Matty McMartin. "Good to meet you." Wide smile, greyish beard, thick glasses. He's dressed as if he has never been bike riding in his life: black dress pants, cowboy boots, heavy down jacket, an absurd hunter's cap with ear flaps that dangle loosely on either side of his foolish face. His hand, clasping Jim's, has the heft of a brick.
"So," says Jim.
"So," says Matty McMartin.
They set off in the fine rain on the rented bikes, June and Matty pedaling on a tandem. The trail pavement darkens, begins to glisten. The shop was all out of sixty-centimeter frames so Jim is stuck on a too-small bike. He feels like someone's little brother, always getting wedged in tiny spaces and needing to be rescued. He zips ahead, swerving past other bikers and joggers, undeterred by the light drizzle. As he pedals, he feels lighter, as if extraneous bits and pieces are dropping away, as if the stress he's been hauling around is littering the trail in his wake. Finally, he stops and waits. After a few minutes, Simon appears, followed by Matty. Then, to his surprise, Molly and his mother are pedaling steadily on the tandem.
"We switched," his mother says. "So that Simon would have someone to ride with other than his mother. It was Matty's idea."
Matty's glasses are fogged and he is breathing heavily, leaning on the handlebars, sweat streaming down the side of his red face. His cap is crammed in a pocket and Jim can see his pate shining repulsively through the greying strands.
A terrible impulse grips Jim. "Hey, Matthew—Matt. Let's race to the lighthouse. Loser buys the beers." A quarter of a mile away, a ten-foot replica of the lighthouse stands on a small pier. A yellow light glows dimly.
"Jimmy," his mother says. "Matty's not an athlete like you."
"Why don't you let Simon race, too?" says Molly, a little too quickly.
But Matty puts his arm around each of them, June on one side and Molly on the other. "Simon and Jimmy can race each other after, okay? It'll be fairer that way for them and me. This time, just let me give old Jim a run for his money, on our own. Eh, Jim?" And winks at him.
The trail broadens to near street-width where they start, shoulder-to-shoulder. Jim streaks forward in the thickening rain. Ahead, the small lighthouse winks through fingers of low hanging clouds. He glances back to see exactly how far ahead he is, and plows straight into a bench. He feels himself leave the bike, like a hand has come out of nowhere and clouted him. The wet grass slams against his back and he gasps for air, the weight of the bike lying on his right leg. For a few moments, there is nothing but shock and numbness, the grey sky all in his face, filling his view, his lungs struggling to fill. And then he sucks air and pulls himself up as Matty whizzes by, waving. Then his mother and Molly are there, making worried noises but he climbs back on his chump bike. He chases Matty's rear tire the last forty feet, onto the wooden planking of the pier that thumps under him.
"Boy, you really went flying there." Matty discards his heavy coat and steam rolls off his chunky shoulders. Dark patches show under his arms and across the front of his shirt. "I would've thought you'd know how to ride better than that, especially in those fancy duds. Need meds before you buy me that beer?"
"It's nothing." But there's a swathe of reddened skin where the bench sandpapered his shin from kneecap to ankle, which is starting to puff gently against the top of his shoe.
Then Matty puts his face close and says, "You're a sick puppy, Jim. I know what happened and I pray to God you got some help in Dallas."
June, Molly, and Simon are clattering down the wooden pier toward them so there's no time to say the words lining up behind his teeth. Instead, Jim stuffs a five-dollar bill into Matty's shirt pocket. "There's your beer. Hope you choke."
But Matty has misheard him. "Ain't no joke, Jimmy."
Back at his hotel, Jim lies on the bed and watches the spackled ceiling. He's called Eve twice but she's not answering because it's still the lunchtime rush in Dallas and he imagines her leaning over the steam table, plating white china platters with duck confit and kale roulade. He doesn't remember anything from that horrible morning—what, a year ago—except the shock of his sister's face, Simon's delighted yelp. It had become a fathomless shielded bruise, something he'd read about while standing in the checkout at Walmart or seen in a movie that he wished he'd walked out of. He picks up his cell phone and tries Eve again. His shin aches.
He arrives by himself at the restaurant that night and the waiter leads him to a big table in the corner. A cool pearlish light fills the room from big windows overlooking the dark water. He remembers coming here as a boy for someone's graduation party, feeling engulfed by the grey carpet and grey drapes glowering at him like those big oblong heads on Easter Island. All around him are cousins, aunts, uncles, distant family friends that bob up to grab his hand, then drift away again. Some he doesn't recognize at all. Matty's family, of course. He never thought of him having any.
Everyone orders beer, wine, mojitos, and, after much deliberation, food. Jim gets himself a bourbon while his mother and Matty share champagne. He feels a touch of jet lag, the table a white beach upon which he's washed up. He gradually unfolds into his bourbon, lets the excitement and laughter eddy around him.
Matty is recounting the race that afternoon. "Never thought an old geezer like me could win one over on someone like James there in all his fancy biker gear." He leans forward to look at Jim. "You got a picture of yourself in those duds??"
"I was so goddamn worried you'd keel over with a heart attack that I was watching you instead of the road."
"Oh, you'd take care of me, Jimmy. I know you would." Matty grins and lifts his champagne flute. "Didn't you used to be a nurse or something?"
"Well, I'm just glad that no one was hurt," June turns to a loaf-faced man beside her. "Have you met my son Jimmy, from Dallas? He sells Chinese stickers. They're all the rage with teenagers."
"Decals, mother. There's a difference."
"They're the cutest things," says his mother. "Have you seen them, Matty? Matty—Matty!"
Matty McMartin is staring down at his hill of clams, shaking his head. He pounds a fist against his chest, his other hand gripping the table. June starts hitting Matty between the shoulder blades, then crumples up her napkin and tries to hold it to his mouth. He pushes it away and gets to his feet, knocking over his chair. A slivery line of saliva falls from his open mouth and his glasses start to fog up. His skin darkens—pink, red, deep red.
His mother turns to him. "Jim—do something!"
His first response is bourbon-laced confusion, but he gets to his feet and pounds Matty on the back, hard enough to knock his glasses from his face. When that has no effect, Jim grabs him from behind, trying to recall the Heimlich maneuver. He jams his clasped fists into Matty's doughy belly, aiming for the diaphragm, in and up, over and over, until his arms ache. He is aware of his mother's voice, high and panic-filled, people shuffling, cutlery clinking. It's dreamily intimate, the closeness of Matty's body, the smell of his hair, warm and dandruffy, the rhythm of his own jerking hands. The room has collapsed, leaving him and this man, a deadweight in his arms, his body reluctantly sewn against his own. It's like falling off his bike again, being slammed out of nowhere, the sudden shock and numbness, only he's taken Matty down with him onto the wet grass this time, in a final wrestling match that will show up the best man once and for all.
"Oh Jesus help us!" June cries. "We need 911!" And then someone—a waiter, a young man—pushes Jim aside and wraps his arms around Matty and starts again thrusting his clenched fist into Marty's belly. There is a soft brrrph and Matty finally vomits up a soggy morsel. June mops his face with a napkin while two waiters help him into a chair. Someone else appears with a steaming hot facecloth. Outside, an ambulance pulls up, uniformed people stream in.
Jim shoves his way outside, onto the deck, into the cold, salty evening air that stings his face. He is dizzy from exertion and from a certain awareness that what he'd been doing was not exactly the Heimlich. His legs are liquid and his arm trembly, weak from the loss. His hands still shake.
Gradually, he becomes aware that someone had put arms around him. "Oh, Jim, you saved his life," says his mother. "Thank you, thank you for saving Matty."
"I didn't save him, mother."
"Oh yes, you did. The medics said you broke two of his ribs. That's how hard you were trying to save him." Her lipstick is smeared over her front teeth and he knows without asking that after Matty took a wavering breath, after he wiped his own face with a napkin and waved the EMTs away, she'd gone to the bathroom to fix her makeup but like always, too hastily. Eager to get back out.
What he should say is that, at the pier that afternoon in the park, he'd told Matty he hoped he choked on his beer. Of course, he meant it as a joke, the hidden word behind the word. Even though he'd picked up the reins, done what was necessary, like he's always done when it comes to his mother. Yes, that was what everyone saw. When he goes inside, in a few minutes, there will be applause and Matty will propose a toast and his mother will hug him again under the golden lights.
"Come in and celebrate," says his mother, pulling on his arm, but he jerks back as if she is contagious and tells her that he has a phone call to make. He stands outside in the dark and watches through the window as she and Matty and Molly cluster at one side of the table, and a waiter pours wine into their glasses. Through the dim pane, he can see Matty fall down again and again, each time more quietly than before, and each time, Jim walks past him, through and away.