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Come Home Margaret


Harry Buschman

I call to him, "Michael! Michael!! Over here!" .... He's standing on the steps of the high school auditorium looking this way and that. All the other kids seem to know where they're going except Michael.

"Let's go Michael, you know how your mother feels about supper." -- I roll the window up and watch him walking toward me. Why did I say -- "Your mother," -- "your mother," A strange way to refer to Margaret, as though she was a head mistress. Never my wife, or "Margaret." Never "We." Never "Us." .... when did that begin?

No sense asking. I know exactly when it started, it started when I gave up the job at the magazine and began writing at home. I could have rented a small office in town and written there, but the temptation to write at home whenever I damn well felt like it was too strong. My best time has always been late afternoon into evening. So I kicked around the house all morning and Margaret found things for me to do -- "After all you're not really doing anything. There's the hose in the washing machine, and look at that hedge -- the clippers are right there in the garage."

If I was in the city, I'd be on the phone talking to editors, other writers -- people in the business. That's the way to keep your finger in -- to know what's going on. How's a man to keep his pecker up while he's fixing the hose in the washing machine? Is it any wonder I'd find myself in front of the liquor cabinet at 11 in the morning? Now I measure my day by the level of scotch in the bottle and I can see what a mistake it was. Now I wait to hear Margaret on the phone or see her in the garden, then I make a bee line for the bottle, grab a quick one and go back to the washing machine or the typewriter. When I stop and consider it carefully, the way things have been going there isn't much difference between them.

"What kept you so long, Michael?"

"Oh, that picky bastard, Mr. McKibben. He made us do the second act three times this afternoon."

"Don't call your teacher a bastard, Michael."

Michael and his drama class were putting on "The Cherry Orchard" that spring. In the light from the street lamp I could see he was still wearing his stage make-up. He looked uncomfortably androgynous, like those teen age boys I remembered hanging around Columbus Circle at night. He wants to be an actor! I shook my head at him and started the car.

"You know Michael, Chekhov runs pretty deep. Maybe Mr. McKibben is trying to  bring out the ...."

"Ah, who gives a crap! It's a high school play, what's the big deal? We havin' anything good for supper?"

"I don't know, I've been working."

He turned from me and looked out the window. I could tell he was on the edge of saying something about the drinking. He could smell it I'm sure. I picked up the speed a bit ....

"Dad, there's a police car behind you -- I can see it in the mirror."

Suddenly there were lights flashing behind me and I heard a short growl on the siren.

"Better pull over here, Dad," he rolled his window down quickly. "Wind your  window down fast and turn on the fan."

How quick they are to learn the ropes at seventeen. As I eased the car to the  shoulder of the road I wondered how often Michael had been pulled over with four bottles left in a six-pack on the back seat.

The patrol car pulled over in back of me but a little farther out in the road to protect the driver as he walked up behind me.

"Don't get out, stay in the car please. License and registration." He poked his head slightly inside the open window and took a long look at Michael. I fumbled for a while looking for my papers.

"I'll need your insurance card too -- probably in your glove compartment or up under the visor, one or the other, everybody puts them there. Don't hurry, we got lots of time."

Well we didn't have that much time. Margaret, (our mother) would be on pins and needles by now, standing behind the living room curtain -- looking out the window.

"I'm in a hurry, officer. I don't know what I did, but I'd appreciate it if you'd .... "

"Hold on Mr. .... Evans, is it? You passed two stop signs without even slowing down, I clocked you at 45 in a 20 mile zone and from all appearances alcohol is involved. I'm patrolman Willoughby, by the way." He held my I.D. up to the light.

"You wouldn't be Leonard Evans, the writer, would you?"

"There goes your rep, Dad." Michael muttered.

"Yes officer, I'm Leonard Evans -- just picking up my son at school. My wife is waiting for us -- she gets upset if we're late."

"I'll do my best, Mr. Evans. Just let me check your papers, Okay?" He looked in the window at Michael again. "You sober son?" he asked. Michael nodded. "Too bad you weren't drivin'. Got a good reason to be wearin' lipstick?"

"Yes sir -- it's stage make-up."

I could see what was on Patrolman Willoughby's mind. I clumsily tried to explain. "He's my son Officer -- he's in a school play -- "The Cherry Orchard."

"That so?" Said Willoughby as he walked back to his vehicle. Traffic cruised past and curious people stared at us as we waited in the glare of officer Willoughby's spotlight. Why couldn't he at least turn off those damn flashing lights?!

"If we get out of this, don't breathe a word to your mother," I whispered to Michael. No sooner had the words escaped me than I realized there was no place to hide in a small town like this. How many neighbors had driven past this light show on our quiet two lane street without recognizing Leonard Evans and his teenage son?

Willoughby's head appeared in the side window again. "You got no prior  convictions, Mr. Evans -- that's in your favor. But I don't have to tell you that you're DWI do I? I could pull you in for that, you'd could lose your license, maybe even your car. Suppose you ran into something or somebody in this condition?"

"It won't happen again, officer. It hasn't happened before -- I wouldn't have had a drink if I knew I was going to get my son." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Michael shift in his seat and look out the window.

"Tell you what, Mr. Evans. We'll put it down to experience, Okay? But I'm trailing behind you the rest of the way home. I want to see you get this car off the street and in your driveway, then I want to see you lock it up. I'll be parked right there watching."

We drove home, well within the speed limit and stopping, (really stopping) at every stop sign. We even slowed down at intersections without stop signs. To impress officer Willoughby even further I used the turn indicator when I pulled in the driveway. Michael and I got out and I locked up. At that point Willoughby turned off his flashing lights, waved to me and drove off.

Except for the ceiling light in the kitchen the house was dark.

"Where have you been, you knew supper was ready? What was that police car  following you for? What have you two been up to?" She had been waiting for us in the dark, looking out at the street. Silently, we marched like prisoners in single file to the kitchen; the same kitchen that has seen so many tearful confessions, angry confrontations and weary forgivings. For some married couples, the bedroom is the confessional, for us it has always been the kitchen.

"I got picked up for running a stop sign. We had to wait downtown 'til the cop checked my I.D. -- right Michael?"

"Like he says," he shrugged indifferently, "I'm going to wash off this make-up. Is supper still on, Mom?"

We stood at opposite sides of the table, Margaret and I. There, between us, was an overdone pot roast and a bowl of boiled potatoes, turnips and carrots, all of them the color of the varnished food in an old Flemish painting.

"You knew dinner was almost ready when you left. If you have to get in trouble, would you please do it on your own time, and for Heaven's sakes don't involve your son!" That shade of difference again -- "Your son." Sometimes "My son," but never "Our son."

Thank God Michael walked in.

"Gee, Ma -- looks burned, what's it supposed to be?"

The three of us ate in silence, as though someone had died. I didn't want to say I was sorry for being late; it would have started all over again. Had I been that bad a husband that I couldn't say I was sorry?

We were about through when she put her napkin down and said, "Oh, with all your shenanigans I almost forgot. Your agent, what-his-name, Waterson? -- he called and said he got an advance from Bedford."

"Way to go, Pop, any chance of a new leather jacket?"

It had been so long I'd almost forgotten it -- yes "Resurrection." 10,000 words. A long short story, almost a novella. I made a quick mental calculation allowing for the agent's commission and it appeared that Margaret could get her new washing machine after all. We had talked about it, but it seemed fruitless to bring it up now. It was a long time ago, just about the time the booze took hold. I'd probably written it between bouts with the sump pump, the washing machine hose, and the liquor cabinet.

"Actually, Michael, I promised your mother a washing machine. But, we'll see, okay -- there should be enough."

"When did you promise me a washing machine?"

"Oh, it's got to be three years ago, now. It's funny, I can barely remember the story at all, but I remember saying if I sold "Resurrection" we'd get a new washing machine."

"Not exactly a present for me, is it?"

"No, I guess not."

Dinner was over and if anyone asked me, I couldn't have told them what I'd eaten. I was thirsty though -- hadn't had a drink in over three hours. I looked across the table at Margaret -- there was a tenseness in her like a drawn bow. All women undergo their changes differently, but it's been especially hard for her. Not too easy on Michael and me either. She was staring with narrowed eyes at the plate in front of her. She fidgeted with her napkin and raised her left hand nervously to her brow. She looked at us as though we were strangers.

"I have a splitting headache, I'm going to bed as soon as the dishes are done."

"Don't worry about the dishes, dear, Michael and I will do them -- right Mike?"

"There's a cast party at Peter's house, Pop. I'm gonna be late as it is." He turned to Margaret, "I won't be late, Mom. Be home by eleven."

It didn't bother me. I knew he'd be gone for an hour or two and Margaret would be upstairs. Maybe I could get some work done after the dishes -- after a drink or two. Margaret stood up and said a weary good night to both of us. How tired she looked. Fifty-two and utterly exhausted. Had Michael and I taken that much out of her?

So here I stand .... by the kitchen sink listening to the noise of the party coming from Peter's house across the street. The great writer with a story in Bedford's, wearing a "Kiss the Chef" apron. "The Resurrection!" It finally came back to me, that was the one about the old woman on the internet who finds a man who left her sixty years ago. I remember writing it now, it was not between the sump pump and the washing machine hose at all, it was during the occasion of the flood from the upstairs toilet.

There is a window above our kitchen sink that looks out to the north over a tangle of old azalea bushes. They will bloom shortly and loudly announce the middle of May. They need pruning, many of their lower branches are leafless and woody. They were young when Margaret and I moved here, as young as we were. Deep green glossy leaves and blazingly red flowers. We have all grown old together, the azalea's, Margaret and I -- idea for a sentimental story there -- growing old with the shrubbery.

I've had one drink too many. My experience with scotch should make me a better drinker that I am. A wiser drunk. Writing comes easy after two. After two the words flow effortlessly, they have a heft to them that plumbs the depth and breadth of whatever ability I may have. But if I take one more I'm all thumbs. I can't put two words together that I haven't put together before with greater grace and imagination.

There is nothing on television and my mind drifts to Margaret as I read. I should go up and talk to her, but with an apprehension born of experience I put it off until tomorrow. Tomorrow can get so crowded with the things we ought to do today. The night, what's left of it, is balmy, and I take up my post on the front porch to wait for Michael.

I must have dozed. Michael is standing with another boy at the end of our driveway. I don't recognize the other boy. Taller than Michael -- probably older. I find myself wishing he was standing there with a girl -- it would seem more natural after a party. What can two boys have to talk about after a party at this hour?

"You can get into the Actor's Studio at seventeen, Dean was already out in California at seventeen."

"I'd have to have better marks to get out of high school at seventeen. I'll be lucky to get out at eighteen."

They seem to be breaking up, and somewhat unsteadily, Michael approaches the porch completely unaware of me. He stumbles on the top step ....

"Hi, Michael."

"Oh! Hi, Pop. You didn't have to wait up." He stands there, a touch unstable. I recall him stumbling like that as a child of eighteen months planning his next step from the coffee table to the sofa to show his mother and me how small a step it is for a man.

"I wasn't waiting Michael -- are you okay?'

"Yeah, fine -- good party. How's Mom?"

"Asleep, I guess." He stifled a yawn and looked at his watch in the light from the living room window. "It takes a little time Michael, you know? It's something all women go through. They're not like us, you know."

"She's got her problems I suppose. I don't know a lot about women, Pop. You  going to bed?"

"I'll be right up." He's got his balance now, and he's alert enough to hold the screen door from slamming as it closes.

But, it's not the response I expected, and I feel I should call him back from the edge of a dangerous precipice. There is so much I want to tell him and if I put it off until tomorrow it will slip my mind. He is our son after all. If Margaret were here, together we might be able to keep him from going over the edge, but she's not here and I can't do it alone, I know too little of life to do it alone -- along with everything else it will have to wait until tomorrow.

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