It was cold, dark and early in the morning and the boy was under the bedspread, the big white George Washington bedspread that smelled like his mother, when he first heard whispering out in the hallway of the big old house on Long Island. The boy couldn’t make out the words, but he recognized the whispered voices of his father, brother and sister, and he could tell that whatever was going on, it was not good. This wasn’t a fun kind of whispering, this was more like a keep-Joe-in-the-dark kind of whispering.
Another thing was they weren’t pushing him to get out of bed. Usually at this time of morning in November, it was ‘get up, get up, you’ll be late for school.’ He was sure it was a school day. But that day they were letting him alone in the dark and they were out there whispering.
After a while, the boy’s father came in the room and didn’t say a word, he went right to his big closet and started dressing. But he was putting on a white shirt, and a suit and tie, which was very strange, he never dressed up in a suit and tie on a work day. His father drove a truck and wore green work pants, thick socks and heavy boots. The only time he wore a suit was when he took the boy’s mother dancing at Roseland in New York City and to church on Sunday. He never wore a suit to work. He wasn’t his usual chipper self, either, whistling and making jokes. He looked bad.
After he finished dressing, he went back out to the hallway and they started whispering again, but this time he heard his brother, who was eight years older than he was, start crying. It wasn’t like him to cry. The boy had never seen his brother cry, but there was no doubt in his mind, the boy heard his brother crying. Then he heard his sister say, “Stop it. He’ll hear you.” She was trying to muffle her voice, but she lost the whisper on that line and it came out in a voice loud enough to hear.
In a few minutes the boy’s sister came in and stood over him. She was ten years older than the boy and sometimes she acted like she was his boss. She was always nice about it, never pushy no matter what kind of mess he’d made, but still, she sometimes acted like an adult, although she was only 15.
She reached one hand down and touched the spread where it covered his arm, just barely touching the boy. Then she sat down next to him and rubbed his back gently through the spread.
“You okay, Joe?” she said.
He was pretty sure something bad had happened, the way they were all tiptoeing around and whispering and crying and all, he figured he’d learn more if he feigned sleep, so he didn’t move or say anything, he acted like he was still sleeping. It was still dark, although he knew for sure it was morning and getting ready to be light out. He thought he must have put on a pretty good sleep act because she walked away without saying anything else.
The next thing that happened, he heard somebody at the back door. It was pretty quiet, but then the door slammed shut and in a few minutes, he heard more crying. He wasn’t sure who this was, but it was a woman and the woman was sobbing, big, deep sobs, pretty much out of control. His best guess was it was his Aunt Josie, his mother’s sister. The woman was shouting, shrieking really, saying something so mixed up with the sobs he couldn’t make sense of it. A few words he heard: “Young.” Then, “How?” Then “Can’t be.”
Again he heard his sister’s voice trying to be quiet, but no doubt about the words: “Stop crying, please. He’ll hear you.”
After a long time, he heard his father’s voice, this time not a whisper, but loud and clear.
“We have to stop this. I’ll tell him, I have to tell him. There’s no other way. He’ll have to make up his own mind about it. Of course he’s a baby, I know that. But what else can we do? I’ve got to tell him.”
The boy laid still and heard his father’s steps as he came into the bedroom and sat on the bed. He pulled the bedspread back a little and put his hands on the boy’s arms. His father’s hands were big and strong but he was always gentle and kind and when he touched the boy that morning, the boy felt the warmth in his hands. There was no fooling his father about being asleep, there was no way he could try that trick on him. He was way too smart for that.
“Joe,” he said. “I have to talk to you.”
He didn’t say anything. He opened his eyes and looked at his father.
“Do you want to see your mother for the last time?” he said.
Well, this puzzled the boy. Why would it be the last time? He’d just been out with her the day before picking up the warm brown eggs the chickens had laid in their big backyard. She would lift him off the floor with one big hand and prop him up on her hip and walk around that way. Then she’d set him down on the washing machine and tie his shoe laces and hold his face in her hand and kiss him on the top of his head. She had a sewing machine that worked with foot pedals and whenever the boy got near it she would say, “Joseph, don’t you touch that pedal. We’ll have thread all over.” She made chicken soup and spaghetti sauce with meatballs and chocolate pudding and tapioca but she also made the boy swallow a teaspoon of cod liver oil every day. He and his father would take the Pontiac and pick her up from her job at the Kenwood Knitting Mills where she was paid to use the sewing machines. On Sundays his mother and sister both worked in the kitchen on big meals of lasagna that came with thick red tomato sauce and white creamy cheese and bowls of beef chunks and pork sausage and they all sat around a big table outside under a grape vine. Why would it be the last time?
“Your mother is gone, Joe. She died. You can see her one last time if you really want to, but she’s really not even there, not the mother that you know, anyway. It might be better if you just remember her like she was.”
The boy’s father didn’t need to do any more convincing. He wasn’t sure what happened, but all the whispering now made sense. His mother was gone and would not be back. What was odd was that bedspread, it had these little nubs or tufts in it, and it smelled like his mother, just like her, and he stayed wrapped in it for a long time.
Joe Registrato is editor of AliveTampaBay.