At 9:01 we leave the bar on Main and walk less than a block—past the well-designed parking garage, past the strip club with the behemoth man taking the escalator to the second floor — to our parked car. It is the first time I notice how dark it now gets at such an early hour. Just a month before, in the 9 o'clock light, and on this same street, my mother wouldn't have asked me if I carried pepper spray. We open the car doors, and she turns the ignition. Her right knee has not stopped jittering since dinner.
"His still hasn't called. Your brother still hasn't called," she says.
All my life she's told me not to wait around for phone calls. All my life. And here she is spending every minute of every day waiting, worrying. I get it, though. He's her son. My brother. It's different.
Even with the windows open, the city is quiet as we drive north. She pauses slightly at an empty four-way stop. Down Baltimore Avenue we notice a dime-store we've never seen before. Inside is filled with fringe-edged lampshades and cracked globes. Outside, a man leans against his walker, waiting for something. Who knows.
The sky is covered in an opaque sheet of dark iris. The yellow lights of the President Hotel give off a hypnotic glow as they rest in the limbo between street level and the sheet cloud's edge, like the flashlight that once shimmered as I read Anne of Green Gables from under the covers. Fluorescent patches of office-buildings and the headlamps of oncoming traffic drift near my alert but buzzed conscious and outward, toward the periphery of faint memories I will try to conjure later when I write.
I look east, down city blocks that grade upward toward the cloud cover. Cars appear from nowhere, as if they have fallen, heavily, from the sky to stop and go in single-file lines. "I wish I had my camera tonight," I say. I always wish I had it.
The light turns green, and we cross the Broadway Bridge. "Into the Mystic" plays on the radio, and I think about how much I used to like this song. How, inexplicably, it suddenly became uncool to like this song. How I still like it. And we hum together, me and my mother.
The song ends as we pull into a fuel station outside of town. "I'm just gonna put in $10," says my mother. She goes in to pay, I get out of the car, open the tank, get back in the car and check my phone. "Here, put these in my purse." I look up, startled as she passes a box of Tylenol and a pack of Merits through the window. I watch her wait outside at the pump and remember that I smoked one of her cigarettes the other night. I can't decide whether to tell her. I don't feel guilty for swiping it from the drawer. Actually, I don't feel guilty at all. I didn't smoke the whole thing anyway. Even though when I swam laps the following afternoon, my lungs heaved with angry exhaustion. I decide not to say anything. When the fuel gauge stops at $20, we leave.
By the time we reach Crooked Road it is much darker than 25 minutes earlier. She pulls into the garage, and when we open the kitchen door the two pups are there, panting, waiting, wiggling, greeting us in licks and excited screams. My mother quickly grabs their leashes and whisks them away for a quick walk. I go upstairs. Remove my jewelry. Put on a jumper and some sweats. Turn out the lights in my room. Walk towards the bed, carefully lift up the sheet and scoot my whole body underneath. I hold up the cover by the tips of my fingers and wonder where I put the flashlight.