By Tina Tocco
Featured Art: Country Road in France by Henry Ossawa Tanner
“Your daddy and I just figured all this nonsense would be over by now.”
My mother has just dropped six spoonfuls of instant coffee into a mug filled with hot water from the bathroom sink. Her spoon chinks and chinks and chinks and chinks the side with the chip. I sip the tea I brought from Berkeley.
“You’re thirty-one, Tanya Grace. I hope someone’s told you what that means.”
My father has read what he can of the newspaper. He has shaved off the end of his pencil and is circling the houses locked in foreclosure. He and Uncle Rex can be in and out in under an hour, the knobs and faucets silent in the sacks my mother sews.
“Four sweatshirts wide,” she used to tutor, “so the stuff don’t clang so much, like.”
I sip the tea I brought from Berkeley. My advisor told me about the place, extolling the flakiness of their scones. After walking past it for two more semesters, I finally got up the nerve to go in and order one. When the high school girl behind the counter asked, “Which kind?” I had to say, “Surprise me.”
My mother’s housecoat catches the nick in the butcher block as she tips her weight against the counter. “He’s not going to wait around forever, you know.” The last chunk of the butter cake I picked up in St. Louis is still in its box, propped on the little burner at the back of the range, which my father has been meaning to look at. My mother sets the box on my father’s newspaper, but he waves his pencil at it, the hunch of his shoulders inert. His pencil shavings blow into the Used Autos column. My mother settles the box on one of the front burners and eats. “You know what happened to that Morton girl.”
“That Morton girl”—there are five—is Jane. After two years at Mike’s Tackle, she bought a duffel bag and begged one of her cousins to drive her to Middle Tennessee State. Sociology and Anthropology. And waitressing. Seven years. She moved to New York the year I started my thesis. When she came home the following Christmas, John Harling paid her back rent. His marriage to her lasted less time than her time in Greenwich Village.
“No use keeping it in if nothing’s coming out,” my mother says, her nose in her mug.
The phone rings. It is probably Mrs. Morton. My mother makes for the living room. My little cousins like to call it the alligator phone; they do not yet know the word “avocado.” They like to twirl the cord around silverware they have pilfered from the kitchen, pretending it is green spaghetti.
I pull Applied Mathematics for Physics: A New Approach from the chair alongside me. It sticks against the cherry vinyl, making that sound my cousins think is hilarious. My father smiles, circling another foreclosure. He turns a page; I turn a page. He pulls another pencil and his knife from one of his breast pockets. He gives the pencil four easy strokes, then blunts the new point between his fingernails. That point will never break. He hands the pencil to me without a glance. I take it, even though I have started in yellow highlighter. I underline words that will never be spoken inside the county line.
The door swings in, and my mother is back. She is about to shoot off a tale about someone or something, but stops a few words in. “Books off the table, miss.” I oblige, returning it to the chair. There is still plenty of time to finish my syllabus before the start of the semester. As my mother would say, “There’s never any reason to court an argument.”
“You need to think about what you want, Tanya Grace. He’s always been on a path, that one. It’s not easy getting county work nowadays, and he’s got seniority.” The last wedge of butter cake in her throat, my mother says, “Medical benefits for life.”
She goes back to the bathroom for some more hot water, and I pull out my phone, pointing it at the four walls for a signal. I am uncertain if it is the aerial on the roof or the hills’ minerals that deter the natural flow of anything in or out. I am finally reading, “Grace, when you get here on Monday, can we review . . . ” when my mother’s slipper cracks a curl in the linoleum. “Oh, for the sake of the Lord, girl!”
I return my phone to the patchwork knapsack I have carried since grad school, the one that reminds me of Meemaw’s quilt work. It will blend in at Cal State, even though it never blends with my Fendi pumps.
I sip the last of the tea I brought from Berkeley. I bring the mug to the sink. I am explaining under the cold spray that I do not want to hit traffic in Kansas City. My mother says that’s wise of me.
My knapsack is not even on my shoulder as I swing the door toward the living room. My mother follows me, and my father follows her. I sidle around a few of his boxes, heavy with his latest round of acquisitions, and I admire the way he has taped them. Those seams will never break.
At the screen door, my mother has my face in her palms. She is telling me to drive safe and other things. The alligator phone starts up again. She kisses me hard on one cheek and makes for the receiver. She tells whoever it is to hang on, and without covering the mouthpiece, says, “Now get your head in line, Tanya Grace. That boy’s a catch.”
My mother fades, and my father steps into her place. He dips into his other breast pocket, pulls out a small rectangle of bills; probably fives and singles. He nestles it into my hands, cups them at the knuckles. I smile, push the little pack into my pocket, next to the pencil.
As I maneuver down the driveway, then floor it on the county road, I remember that Applied Mathematics for Physics: A New Approach is seated on the cherry vinyl. I do not go back. My mother will send it with one of her little notes—“This was at my own expense, Tanya Grace”—to the address she has for me in Berkeley. But the book will never reach me. My boxes are already headed south to Cal State, to an address I have neglected to leave behind, and I am well beyond anything sent from home.
Tina Tocco is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her flash has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Best Nonfiction Food, River Styx, Crab Creek Review, Roanoke Review, Potomac Review, Portland Review, and Italian Americana, among others. She was a finalist in CALYX’s Flash Fiction Contest and an honorable mention in the River Styx Schlafly Beer Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction Contest. Tina earned her MFA from Manhattanville College, where she was editor-in-chief of Inkwell.
Originally published in Issue 19.