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Archer Mayor

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Chapter 1

"Made it, Ma. Top o' the world," Leo quoted theatrically, his words shrouding his head in the cold night air. "What would you think if I went out like that?"

His mother twisted around in her wheelchair to look at him balefully. "I don't understand why such a wonderful dancer would do a movie like that."

Leo smiled down at her as he pushed her gently along a shoveled path, across the broad courtyard before Dartmouth's Hopkins Center for the Arts, universally nicknamed The Hop. "I warned you, Ma. I told you it wasn't Yankee Doodle Dandy."

"You said it was a gangster movie," she persisted, "not an ode to a psychopath."

Leo burst out laughing. "Wow. You make it sound pretty deep. I just liked it when he shot the car trunk full of holes to let the guy inside breathe, or when he went nutso in the prison dining hall after finding out his mother died."

She faced forward again as they neared the curb. "How did I end up with such a disturbed child?" she asked meditatively.

"Hey," he told her. "You got one son who's a cop. Stands to reason the other should go to the dark side. It's nature's balance."

He went to pass by her on his way to unlock the car, when she grabbed his wrist in a quick-moving, wiry hand.

This time, her expression was soft and appreciative. "I've been doubly blessed, Leo," she told him. "Both my boys are just right."

He leaned over and kissed her wrinkled cheek, warm in the evening's chill. "I love you, too, Ma. I hear they're playing Polanski's Repulsion next week."

She tapped the side of his head playfully as he moved away. "Oh, now, that sounds like a comedy."

"You have no idea," he admitted.

She watched him bustling about, unlocking doors, starting the engine to get the heater going. It wasn't all that cold, even though it had been dark for several hours. Dartmouth's trademark Green was coated with a new layer of snow, which shimmered under the glow of dozens of traditionally designed streetlamps. These, along with the formal brick buildings looming darkly beyond them, and the enormous library's beautifully lighted clock tower at the far end, lent the entire scene a timelessness, as if she might have been waiting for her son to hook up a horse and sleigh instead of a Subaru.

"All set," he said, stepping behind her once more and easing her chair off the sidewalk to where it nestled beside the car's open door.

She reached out and took hold of the two handles Leo had attached just inside the opening, one high and one low, and nimbly used them to assist herself inside. Her legs were too weak to support her, but they did move, which was a godsend in situations like this. She was already attaching her seat belt by the time Leo opened the car's rear door to slip in the folded wheelchair.

He joined her moments later, making the car rock as he virtually fell into his seat. An enthusiast by nature, he never did anything by half measures, including the most mundane of actions.

"You want to stop somewhere for ice cream or cocoa or something?" he asked.

Now she was looking at the facade of The Hop, from which they'd just come on their weekly Friday night outing. Designed by the same architect who later did Lincoln Center in New York, it looked like the kind of place that would offer a broad sampling of the arts-modern by one light, slightly worn by another. She and Leo came here frequently, local beneficiaries of the college's mission to be a generous cultural neighbor.

"No," she answered him. "Not tonight. Drive me around the Green, though, will you? I love the buildings."

Leo backed out of their parking space and slipped into the thin traffic, taking his first left to engage the long eastern reach of the Green.

"Feeling touristy?" he asked.

She was watching the buildings go by, but also the students, huddled in their winter clothing, marching determinedly in small groups or singly, intent on their mysterious goals, which could as easily have been the next beer or a rendezvous as some scholarly pursuit. Although she'd been a local her entire life, even if from Vermont, just across the river, she'd never had the envious, resentful view of the college so many other "townies" harbored, nor had she delighted in the supposed depiction made of the place in the movie Animal House. She worshipped education, and while her sons had become a police officer and a butcher and hadn't benefited from Dartmouth's offerings, she had made sure they developed an appreciation of music and literature and art, and she'd trained them to be analytical, appreciative, mindful, and kind.

She knew that college students could be self-indulgent, narcissistic, and careless with the gift they'd been offered. Those were the cliches. But as Leo slowly circled the Green, quietly allowing for her meditation, she relished the fantasy she'd held forever, of places like this being the incubators of the mind, where kids learned to think, sometimes despite their best resistance.

"You should've gone here, Ma," Leo finally said.

She turned away from the buildings to look at him. "I came close enough," she said after a thoughtful pause. "I got access to that library and passed along what you and Joe could bear. It would have been fun to actually sit in class, but I can't complain-I've read what a lot of their professors wrote."

Leo laughed again. "And you got to fall asleep in class. We were always taking books off your lap after you dozed off."

She whacked his shoulder. "Once in a blue moon, after spending all day chasing you two around."

"You did good, Ma," he said after a pause.

It was a gentle taunt. He delighted in mangling English around her, since she worked so hard not to do so herself. But this time, instead of correcting him, she chuckled and admitted, "I think I done good, too."

He smiled and hit his right turn indicator at the stoplight, preparing to go down North Wheelock and across the bridge into Vermont, at the bottom of the hill. Of course, much of what they'd just been talking about dated back a few years. His mother had slowed down recently, reading less and watching more television. And since landing in the wheelchair, she'd retired the use of that library card.

Their years together were numbered, clearly.

In the darkness of the car, his smile faded away. As silly as it sometimes sounded when he admitted it out loud, he'd lived with his mother all his life so far, and he was fair and square beyond middle age. His older brother, Joe, had been the restless one, leaving home early to join the service, seeing combat halfway around the world, going to college for a few years in California. Even now he lived in Brattleboro, near the Massachusetts border, sixty miles to the south.

But Leo had never seen the attraction. He and their mom lived in the farmhouse he'd been born in, and his room overlooked the fields his father had once tilled. When the old man died so many years ago, leaving behind two boys and a young widow, the three survivors had looked to one another for their grounding. Joe had used that as a springboard to go forth into the world; Leo had seen it as all he really needed. He began working at the market in Thetford Center, just down the hill from the farm, and settled into a life of dating girls lacking in serious intentions, working in the barn on old cars from the sixties, becoming the most highly prized butcher for twenty miles around, and establishing an easy and permanent friendship with his mother.

Which he knew was closing in on a natural end.

"You're awfully quiet all of a sudden," she said softly.

They had just reached the bridge spanning the Connecticut River, a newly rebuilt structure, which its designers had accessorized with a series of gigantic, evenly spaced concrete balls-a source of some humor in a school renowned for its testosterone.

"Just thinking about the movie."

She let it go. Whatever its virtues, White Heat didn't merit an excess of reflection. Leo had something private on his mind, and she had a pretty good idea what it was, or what she feared it might be. While grateful for a lifetime of Leo's company, she was not unaware of the peculiarity of a middle-aged son still living with his mother. The thought that she-or her circumstances, first as a widow and then as an invalid-had encouraged this situation only made her feel guilty. That said, she was also a pretty good observer of people, and her take on her younger son was that he was not only happy with the status quo, but increasingly worried about what to do after she died.

     

 

2011 - 2018