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Sad

The city stunk of garbage that’s been baked on a cement skillet and left out for the flies and anything else hungry, and desperate enough to deal with it. The cars where loud and endlessly honking as they swerved in and out of each other in a never-ending race against time that they’ve already lost. But that’s big city life. A continuous race towards something, if for those who are lucky enough for the opportunity, or a climb to survive for the rest of the unlucky majority. 

           James Gilroy was the former of the two. His suit was tailored, and his shirt was pressed. The tie around his neck was only slightly crooked; he’d loosened it on the subway ride towards the heart of the city after a long day’s work. He was lucky enough that he could afford to see a little green on his way home. Little blots of planted trees that fought to survive on toxic air and little space for roots. He checks his Chopard watch, while being buzzed into his building. His phone was pressed to his ear, and he fought the urge to roll his eyes at his manic assistant who was working in coordination with the other assistants to get this ten-year anniversary party put together. Five o’clock, his watch said. He was right on time getting home which gave him two and a half to fix dinner, workout, and shower before the party where he would finally get the promotion he’d been working so hard for.

           “Don’t fret so much, Jennine. I’m sure that the gift you picked out for me to give to the board will be great. I’m more worried about getting those quarterly numbers from Bill.”

           “I’m trying to get a hold of him, but he hasn’t answered his phone. He would be sick today of all days.”

           “We need those numbers. Tomorrow morning, I submit those reports and will hopefully solidify this position.”

           “I know, sir. I’m going to grab some flowers and swing by his house to check on him and try and get those reports.”

           “Clever,” James, said fishing his keys out of his pocket.

           “Will you need me to reserve a plus one at the party?”

           “That won’t be necessary, just put on a red dress and we will look like a team. It’s a good impression to set that we are a unified front.” He hung his keys up by the door and stripped his jacket off, relived by the freedom of movement. “My permission means yours as well, after all.”

           “Yes, sir. I’m sure I have something that will do. Should I send a car to get you?”

           “Yes, have one here at seven thirty.”

           “Yes, sir. I’ll see you tonight.”

           He hardly made it three steps into the door before his cat began to rub against his legs and beg for attention. He scratched Athos between the ears affectionately before picking him up and taking him to the kitchen. His underlit cabinets brightened the way. James released the cat on the counter and began to prep a bowl of food for him. Then Athos stiffens. The hair on his back bristled and he arched upward to make himself bigger before letting out a long hiss, making James jump.

           “I don’t think your cat likes me much.”

James whirled around out the familiar voice. He lunged for the light switch for the living room that he hadn’t even bothered turning on. “God, mom, you scared the hell out of me.”

 His mother was dressed in a long, crimson wool skirt and button up off-white shirt, the same outfit he’d remembered seeing her wear in a picture from his childhood. He was reminded of a day they spent in the country one winter. Though the fall chill was seeping into New York, it wasn’t quite cold enough for wool in his opinion. She sat in his reading chair with one leg crossed over the other, and he distinctly remembered her sitting similarly while waiting for him to come home in high school after sneaking out to a party, though she didn’t currently have the same look of frustration and worry written on her face.

“What are you doing here?” He said, crossing the room to lean down and embrace her.

“I came to visit you. Since you haven’t been home in a while, I thought it was time I came to see you.”

“Last I spoke to you; you’d taken a tumble last month and hit your head. Jackie had to call me from the hospital and let me know you where okay.”

“And yet you still didn’t come to visit your poor, old, momma.” She teased, pinching James’ nose affectionately.

He knelt on the floor in front of where she was sitting, so he could speak to her at eye level, and not look down upon the woman who raised him and his sister on her own. “I’m sorry, mom. It’s been busy. I’ve got this promotion I’ve been working on, and business has been crazy.”

She waved her hand between them as if batting his excuses away. “No, I don’t want to hear excuses. I want to spend some time with you.” At that moment, the phone in his breast pocket starts to ring. She pulls it out before he could see the screen and turned it off, setting it aside. “Without this thing.”

He’s agitation spiked, thinking about all of the people who could possibly be calling him. He thought of all the things that could be going wrong and need his attention, but he couldn’t argue with her. He couldn’t bring himself to. “It’s not the best night, mom. I’ve got a company anniversary party to go to tonight.”

“Sounds like fun! I’ll help you get ready.” She pushed off the chair, forcing him to stand up as well. “What’s first on your master agenda.”

“How do you know I have an agenda?”

“Because you’re my son. The only way that I could get by juggling you and your sister was keeping an agenda and you have fortunately, or unfortunately gotten that from me.” She smiled at him, a brilliant, red painted smile that crinkled the lines around her mouth and folded the skin around her eyes. She always said that they were happy folds that told how much joy she had in life. It was the same smile she handed down to my sister.

“I was going to work out,” he said, running through the timed schedule in my head and deciding it wouldn’t happen with his mother in toe.

“Then let’s go for a walk, dear.” She said, reading my mind in a way only mothers can do. “I’ll grab my coat.”

He felt a smile creep onto his face. He forgot how nice it is to be bossed around by someone who loved him. He usually was ordered around like he was a work horse at the company, and as a result, bossed others the same way. Except his assistant, of course. He knew how to treat valuable employees. Without an argument, he slipped into his room to change into more causal clothes and came back out to see her wrapped in the same double breasted trench coat he bought her two years ago for Christmas. That was the last Christmas he got to spend at home.

She took the arm he offered her and grabbed his keys on the way out the door, while answering a plethora of questions she had about work, about my promotion and the party. The more we discussed business, the more I kept looking at my watch. One hour had gone by already. He had one and a half left before his car got here, then a half hour drive to the party. Meanwhile his phone was upstairs, turned off and probably buzzing like crazy between emails, calls and texts needing something from him.

He tried to push that away, and instead listened to her chatter about the big city. She lived on the outskirts of New York, the countryside of it where grass could still be seen covering the earth in the summer, and scattered rows of trees turn to auburn in the fall. She never got over her son move here, and always wanted him to come home. She was walking so slowly that that James had to focus on his stride so he didn’t drag her, or maybe she was just walking at a normal country pace in comparison to the bustle he usually lived by.

She chattered on, the way mothers do. Asking about his love life, which was nonexistent and explaining how important it was for him to settle down. He fought the urge to roll his eyes, because even though it would be done with affection, she would see it as disrespect and likely pinch his arm in that death pinch, she always did when he was a naughty boy. He and his sister learned to fear the powerful combination of her thumb and pointer finger coming at them. That was the worst he’d ever gotten though. She never had the heart to spank him or raise her voice. Sometimes that was the scariest thing she could do was quietly reprimand their behavior.

By the time they reached his building again, he expected her to be tired considering all the trips in and out of the hospital she’s had over the last year, but she was bright and bubbly. He expected her to be frailer and weak, based on the last few phone calls he had between her and his sister, but she kept her smile. As a single mom raising two ambitious children, she had to learn to smile through all the craziness. He’d learned to look past it for signs of fatigue, but there were none, and it settled him knowing his mother was happy, yet he kept looking at his watch.

“Why don’t we make you some dinner before you go to your party?” She suggested.

“Would you rather I take you out to dinner?”

“We don’t have time for that, I’m afraid. Besides, it’s been a while since you’ve helped me cook.” She said as the elevator let them off at the top floor.

“Well, what would you like to cook?”

“Pasta? It’s your favorite. I can’t imagine you don’t have some of the ingredients on hand.”

“I think we can make that happen.” I said, holding the door open for her to go in first. Athos trotted over to greet him but froze and rose on his ankles again. He gave one good hiss before scurrying away. “He really doesn’t like you.”

“That’s because he hasn’t gotten to know me. I think this is the first time I’ve been to your apartment.” She began opening cabinets and pulling bowls out. “I really should have visited more often, James. Relationships go two ways.”

“You’ve been sick, mom. It was your job to get better, and my job to come see you. Don’t hold that over yourself.”

“Yes, but I was also stubborn. You are a four-hour drive away and I’ve never seen your apartment. I just hate this city. It’s so busy and full of people who never stop and see what they’re doing.”

“We are both stubborn.” I said, taking the bowl from her hand. “And I thought I was supposed to help you cook?”

“You are, do you have any tomatoes?”

“They aren’t home grown like yours, and my herbs are dried, and store bought instead of off the back porch, but I think I can accommodate you.”

“Parmesan?”

“In the lower drawer of the fridge. .” I said, fishing out the ingredients.

She started on the pasta while I began to chop the tomatoes. The tension in James’ shoulders was nearly nonexistent as we lapsed into a comfortable silence. His mom, being ever perceptive as usual, picked a quick meal to whip up and according to my watch they were sitting down and eating within a half hour. I had plenty of time to enjoy the meal and still get dressed., but it seemed too soon to think of leaving. I forgot to check my watch as she filled me in on my sister Jackie’s life. My sweet sister was an ER nurse and a mother of a two-year-old daughter, Sarah. She was also working on her Doctorate at the same time, because our mother raised us with ambition built in.

“What are you going to wear tonight?” She asked, collecting our plaits, and putting them into the sink.

“A nice red shirt, with a tie. My assistant is wearing a red dress, so we coordinate. We want to give off that team-like synchronicity, because I’m not taking a promotion without taking her with me.”

“Anything going on there?” She asked, with a suggestive raise of her brow.

“No mother, it’s just professional.”

She clicked her tongue in disappointment, making James laugh before she ushered him to change. She wanted to see James’ outfit. She cooed over how handsome her son was before helping him tie his tie; a thing he did daily for himself, but he let her fuss over him.

“I remember teaching you how to tie a tie right before prom,” She mused her words catching a bit in her throat. “Thank you for letting me tie it now, it makes me feel useful.”

“You will always be useful.”

“No baby, your grown up now. You don’t need me to tie your tie.”

“But I’ll always want you too. Especially for big days like this. I expect you to be there to tie my tie when I get married one day just as you did for prom, just as your doing now.” Her lip quivered, but he continued. “I might skip the party. If I get the promotion, they will tell me tomorrow.”

“Don’t do that, dear. It’s a big night for you.” She said as James pulled away to grab his dormant phone and switch it on.

“No, I want to spend time with you, mom. I’ve missed you.” His phone lit up, restarting in his hand.

“Go to your party dear. I’m just happy we spent time together today.”

“How long are you planning to stay? I’ll turn the guest bed down and you can stay the rest of the week. I’ll drive you home this weekend, and we can spend some time celebrating.”

She shook her head, a sad smile on her face. “I’d love that, but I can’t”

“Will you still be here? If I go to the party, will you still be here when I get back?”

She didn’t answer. James’ phone went off and his sister’s picture pop up. He had a dozen miss calls from her, so he hit the answer button, turning away from his mother. “Hey Jackie, did you not know about mom or something? What’s wrong?”

“Mom? How do you know?” She said, her voice breaking into a sob.

“Jackie, what’s wrong. She’s fine. She’s with me.”

“James, mom is dead.”

“No, she’s not, she’s –” He broke off when he spun around, looking to his mother so she could calm Jackie down for him, but the apartment was empty and Athos was sneaking back out from the shadows, hackles down and as peaceful as ever.

“I found her in her house. She died in her sleep, and I called the ambulance I-” she racked with a sob.

“How- how long ago?”

“I found her two hours ago. I’ve been trying to call you. They said she died around five, but – I missed her, James. I missed her by a few minutes. I should have been with her!”

James fell to his knees. Athos rubbed against his side, trying to comfort him. He felt the blood wash from his face, the tears came next, but he was silently listening to his sister sob. “You where with her.” He said, finally. “You’ve been with her a lot over the last two years. Don’t do that to yourself, Jackie.”

“I can’t help it, she just – just –”

“Don’t do that to yourself.” He said curling up by the chair he knelt in front of two hours ago. “don’t do that.”

The phone vibrated against his ear, and he saw where his assistant had called him several times, and finally resorted to a text message. She’d gotten the quarterly reports. She said everything was on schedule. His first instinct was to undo his tie, until he remembered his mother had tied it. “Screw the schedule.” He sobbed into the phone.

July 13, 2022 16:54

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