The Stroke of Midnightby Terese Svoboda
Imperious still, she sat up in her bed set up on the patio surrounding the pool she built that forced a perspective of chlorinated water over the far edge, one that met the ocean so without seam you swam into it with your eyes, swam without the cliff that separated your perspective from one water to the next. Her four sons watched the white glitter of the fireworks in that trick perspective, heard her lover bang at the door that he insisted he owned half of, and drank a little wine. Because it was the New Year’s fireworks, because their mother loved that holiday with its riot of resolutions and absurd abandon, they would’ve given her vodka through a tube if she’d had one.
But she only drank sips of water.
The eldest called from his family holiday. Not that she could talk to him. She had affirmed the document in which she wrote starving was the way to go by blinking. Were they to abide by what she had signed that set this out so clearly? One blink for no, two for yes, and asked on numerous occasions thereafter. The eldest had seen to this and had tested her blinking even further, scientifically even, by asking if she loved him—two blinks—and whether he was born first, questions she could easily answer, blink, blink, blink! to establish a base line.
The blinks had to be close together, not a blink, and then a blink.
The palms rustled. You can’t have a woman in a sickbed outside on New Year’s Eve without palms. Palms rustled with geckos fleeing the sudden light of explosion, palms so far from where the eldest spent his holiday elsewhere without the grief given by this lover who had also put questions to her, the answers of which belied her clear mind, the blinking not right, not right at all, said the lover. Didn’t she love him more than her children? She had changed that clear mind of hers at last and only blinked once. He waited and waited for the next. Maybe all those two-timing years with that woman down the road who had had so many lifts, her kept quality confused even him sometimes in the grocery stores of their rendezvous had finally given her perspective. It was their mother who had kept him.
All those years the lover taunted the brothers, the eldest especially, the eldest who had to file the order to keep him from entering what he was claiming to be his own home that he had swindled her out of so long ago. She was once his next door neighbor but he had wooed and aligned her in widowhood, then she had signed over those papers; she hadn’t needed to blink then. They could not keep him out under those legal circumstances of title and deed, and so instead they changed locks and kept guard and slept in shifts. Once he threw a brick through a window from his next door lawn and set off the electronic eyes and all the alarms. He had also tried to cut off the ambulance with his car when they had her moved home, and finally bribed hospice workers, giving a diamond to the cute R.N. from the mainland with hot pink lipstick, although they wondered how clear his motivations were with that one.
She had been dying for three weeks. Eating nothing and sipping water in a three-week torture for them, a get-even effort that day after day they paid, redirecting their rage at their mother at the lawyers who worked for their fees this time with all the quotients of distress and grief and hysteria. The eldest had had terrible dreams while he was waiting and easily fell prey to his family’s pleas to return for their holiday, if only for the presents. It won’t be long now, he kept telling his brothers but it was, day after beautiful day.
Was it the lover shaking those palms? Had he, with bench press determination, scaled their mutual wall and slid down a palm to rustle the palms? You could hear the rustling over the fireworks.
The second eldest did not flick on the wall’s light—he wanted to see the explosions star-bright and the constellations so strange at this dip at the equator. What would the equator be for otherwise, other than another asset for their mother’s fine real estate investment the lover coveted? In the two hours before midnight all of them spent getting a little high in the dark and quiet of their mother’s outdoor bedside, not even eating, no, not even the youngest, the burliest, ate in her presence to validate her decision, the clouds had held themselves off while the bay had slid over the side of the equator the way the pool water did to the bay, that pool now so full of stars and explosions.
The youngest engineered a toast the moment before midnight, before the sprays of light and its booming obliterated all sound. For kindness and mercy. Hear, hear went the others, hoping she could hear, that her single blink and then another five minutes later signified two this time and forever. Then the eldest had called and cried on the phone. He remained torn at his non-equatorial home, though the third son took the phone to reassure him his mother was holding up, doing as well as could be expected, was still there, and he didn’t hang up, he left the phone on the tray table where his brother could hear the fireworks at least, their cheers and their glasses coming together and the palms rustling so loudly that when all the fireworks ended, in one long exhalation of explosion and brightness, their mother lit up like a sudden tropical sunrise, her eyes full of light, even he heard the lover’s enraged Murderers!
An octegenarian Tarzan, a desparate and furious and still virile and hirsute suitor, he bellowed and flashlighted them, having scaled the wall with a ladder on his side and a rope on the other and that was when the third son noticed, in that post-explosion stunned light and fury, that their mother wasn’t blinking, that her stare had slipped over the pool’s edge into the ocean.
But the lover was busy. Was it a kiss he was after by ignoring the restraining order? A simple Happy New Years’, honey? He swung the flashlight at the brothers, a big one, in a passion, in a frenzy like he was Odysseus at that final feast. Although the boys soon had him stopped, it was not without the old man blackening the eye of the middle one who, still about to pour from the new bottle of wine, found it awkward to dodge him. The third son could’ve said, You’re too late just then but he was already crying which confused the others only in the time it took for him to lift the mother’s hand over the other and find her cover, and close her eyes.
They forgot the eldest in all that and what they did after. At dawn, a housekeeper replaced the receiver.
Terese Svoboda's Trailer Girl and Other Stories will be out in paperback this fall. Her fifth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermelade, will be published in 2010.