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The Program

by Saor Hawk

“This has not been the best week for me, I have to say,” Mom said before we’d finished settling into our seats. “Tim passed away.” She shook her head slowly, woefully. “Cancer.”

“Tim?” I asked.

“He’s... was a regular in the Program,” she said, as if that answered everything. “And then Walt thought he was having a heart attack.”

Mom’s mood turned on a dime from heavy- to lighthearted. “But it just turned out to be a false alarm.” She let out a short, burst of a laugh, like the cluck of a very large chicken. “That’s Walt for you. I love him to death, but he can be so melodramatic sometimes.”

“Walt?” I asked.

“Oh, he makes an appearance from time to time. Usually when he’s looking for a little sympathy.” She laughed her clucking laugh again, but this time it sounded as if someone was goosing her simultaneously. She lifted up the rims of her thick, trifocal glasses and began wiping away imaginary tears of laughter.

It had been some time since we’d last talked. I’d nearly forgotten that Mom liked to launch into stories without providing the listener any context for whom or what she was talking about, as if there was no need to, as if we all observed the world through the same pair of eyes — her eyes.

“And then there’s Diane.” Mom’s mood shifted yet again at breakneck speed, becoming earnest and reverential. “She’s so young, Alan.” She bowed her head slightly as she unraveled the napkin from the silverware and spread it across her lap, looking for a moment as if she might be praying.

My head was already beginning to reel from the rapid succession of moods and characters that Mom was parading past me. I took a breath. “Diane?” I asked, feeling like a broken record.

“I just happened to be visiting when the doctor walked in,” she said, raising both hands as if to assure me of her innocence. Innocence from what, I had no idea. “Something told me to, Alan. I don’t know what it was. Just a feeling in my gut.”

Something told you to WHAT? I wanted to scream. But instead I just raised my eyebrows. I was beginning to piece together that Mom was still going to her support group: the Program, as she liked to call it.

How long had it been now? Thirty years?

I saw a young woman fast approaching the table out of the corner of my eye. I guessed her to be sixteen or seventeen... eighteen at most. She was cute. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail so tight it looked painful.

“Oh, hi, Kathy,” the girl said in a familiar tone, looking up from flipping to a fresh page of her guest pad. She darted a friendly but curious look at me. “Will it be the usual?”

Ignoring the question, Mom reached out and took the girl’s hand for no discernible reason. The girl didn’t seem fazed in the slightest, as if holding hands with my mother was nothing out of the ordinary. The sight of it irritated me for some reason; it irritated me quite a bit.

“What’s the usual?” I asked, trying to cover up my annoyance with a smile. “Maybe I’ll have it.”

They both chuckled as if I’d said something funny. Their mysterious camaraderie filled me with an urge to reach out and pull their hands apart. I didn’t do it, of course, but I couldn’t stop staring, either.

More dissimilar hands would have been hard to find. The girl’s were small, the skin smooth, robustly pink and opaque. Despite the manicured nails and black polish, they looked more like a child’s hands than a young woman’s.

The skin on Mom’s hands was nearly translucent and was covered with liver spots — something I’d never noticed before — and etched with deep crevasses at the knuckles, around her nails, and in the crooks of her fingers, and only slightly less wrinkled everywhere else.

They were hard hands, hands that displayed all the wear and tear of the seventy years my mom had been alive. And despite belonging to the woman that had given birth to me, they were unfamiliar hands, a stranger’s hands.

I was jealous; that much was clear. But it was stupid. She was my mother. I was free to hold hands with her wherever and whenever I liked.

To reassure myself, I dove into thirty-six years of accumulated memories looking for an especially poignant image of the two of us holding hands. I wanted to pull it out like a picture in a photo album and wave it in front of the pretty, young, pimply-faced waitress and say, “Look, here I am holding hands with my mom, long before she ever met the likes of you.”

And long before she joined that goddamned support group, which was more like a cult, if you ask me.

When I didn’t immediately find the poignant image I was looking for, I decided to rely on muscle memory. All it would take is one touch, one gentle squeeze of Mom’s hand and the memories — too many to count, I was sure — would come flooding back. But as I reached out, Mom picked up the laminated menu with her free hand, leaving me nothing to grab hold of.

“Well...” she said, tilting her head back to study the menu through the bottom third of her trifocals, which magnified her pupils into two enormous, vapid black holes, “I think today I need some comfort food.”

I watched as she squeezed the girl’s hand, giving it a quick but meaningful shake. “This has not been the best week for me, I have to say.”

Copyright © 2014 by Saor Hawk

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