The Silver Linings Playbook Chapter 24
Mom’s Handwriting Emerges
The sun bursts through the attic window and lands on my face, warming it, until I open my eyes and greet the day with a squint. After a kiss, I return Nikki to my bedroom dresser and find my mother still asleep in my bed. I notice that the glass of water I left her is now empty, and I am glad to have left it there, even if I am mad at Mom now.
As I descend the staircase, I smell something burning.
When I reach the kitchen, my father is standing in front of the stove. He is wearing Mom’s red apron.
When he turns around, he has a spatula in one hand and a pink oven mitt on the other. Behind him, meat hisses – a thick river of smoke flies up into the exhaust fan.
“What are you doing?”
“Are you frying it?”
“I’m cooking it Cajun style. Blackened.”
“Maybe you should turn the burner down?” I suggest, but he returns to his cooking, continuing to flip the sizzling cut over and over, so I go down into the basement to begin my workout.
The fire alarm goes off for fifteen minutes or so.
When I return to the kitchen two hours later, the pan he used is blackened and still on the now greasy stove; a plate and utensils are in the sink. Dad is watching ESPN on his new television, and his surround sound speaker system seems to shake the house. The clock on the microwave reads 8:17 a.m. My mother has forgotten my meds again, so I take out my eight bottles, remove all the caps, and search for the right colors. Soon I have a half dozen pills lined up on the counter, and I confirm that the colors are what I take every morning. I swallow all of my pills, thinking maybe my mother is testing me again, and even though I am technically mad at her, I am also now very worried about Mom, so I climb the steps to my room and see that she is still sleeping.
Downstairs, I stand behind the couch and say, “Dad?”
But he ignores me, so I return to my basement gym and continue my workout, listening to the ESPN commentators recap the college games and forecast the upcoming NFL action. Their voices arrive crisply through the floorboards above. I know from reading the paper that the Eagles are favored to win over San Francisco, which makes me excited to watch the game with my father, who will be in a great mood if the Eagles are victorious, and therefore he will also be more likely to speak with me.
Midmorning, Mom descends, which is a relief, because I was starting to worry that she was really sick. I am riding the bike, and – after finding the “Pat” box last night – I just continue pedaling when Mom says, “Pat?” I do not face Mom, but using my peripheral vision, I see that she is showered, her hair is done, her makeup is applied, and she is wearing a pretty summer dress. Mom also smells really nice – lavender. “Did you take your pills last night?” she asks.
I nod once.
“What about this morning?”
I nod again.
“Dr. Patel told me I should have allowed you to take control over your meds when you first came home, that this was a step toward independence. But I was being a mom when you did not need me to be a mom. So congratulations, Pat.”
“Congratulations” is a strange thing for her to say, especially since I have not won a prize or anything, but I am really only thinking about what happened last night, why Mom came home drunk. So I ask her, “Where were you last night? Did you go out with friends?”
Using the corner of my eye again, I see her look down at the old brown rug beneath us. “I appreciate your putting me to bed last night. The water and the Tylenol helped. It was a bit of a role reversal, eh? Well, I appreciate it. Thanks, Pat.”
I realize she has not answered my question, but I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
“Your father has been a bear lately, and I’m simply tired of it. So I’m making some demands, and things are going to change a little around here. Both of my men are going to start taking care of themselves a little more. You need to get on with your life, and I’m sick and tired of the way your father treats me.”
Suddenly I forget all about the “Pat” box and face my mother as I continue pedaling. “Are you mad at me? Did I do something wrong?”
“I’m not mad at you, Pat. I am mad at your father. He and I had a long talk yesterday when you were running. Things might be a little rough around here for a few weeks, but I think we’ll all be better for it in the long run.”
A wild thought leaps into my head and terrifies me. “You’re not leaving us, Mom, are you?”
“No. I’m not,” Mom says, looking me in the eyes, which makes me believe her one hundred percent. “I would never leave you, Pat. But I am going out today because I’m done with Eagles football. You two are on your own for food.”
“Where are you going?” I ask, pedaling faster now.
“Out,” Mom says, and then kisses the little white scar on my sweaty forehead before she leaves.
I am so nervous about what Mom has told me that I do not eat anything all day, but simply drink my water and do my routine. Because the Eagles are playing at 4:15, I get in a full workout. The whole time, I secretly hope my father will come down into the basement and ask me to watch the 1:00 NFL game with him, but he doesn’t.
Midafternoon I climb up out of the basement and stand behind the couch for a second.
“Dad?” I say. “Dad?”
He ignores me and keeps watching the 1:00 game, and I don’t even look to see who is playing, because I am so nervous about what Mom told me. I put on my trash bag and hope Tiffany is outside, because I could really use someone to talk to. But after I stretch for fifteen minutes, Tiffany doesn’t show, so I run alone, thinking it funny that when I want to run alone, Tiffany is always there, but today she is not.
I am very hungry, and the pain in my stomach increases as I run, which I relish because it means I am losing weight, and well, I feel as though I might have put on some extra fat in the past week, especially after drinking beer with Jake last weekend. This reminds me that I have not spoken with Jake since the Eagles lost to the Giants, and I wonder if he is coming over today to watch the game with Dad and me. Since the pain has sharpened, I decide to run farther than usual, pushing myself. Also, I am sort of afraid to go home, now that my mother has left me alone with my father for the day, and I am not sure what she meant by “changes” anyway. I keep wishing Tiffany was running with me so I might talk to her and tell her how I feel, which is a strange desire since she usually never says much in response, and the last time I tried to talk to her about my problems, she started cursing very loudly in a public place and said some really awful things about Nikki. Still, I am starting to feel as though Tiffany is my best friend, which is sort of strange and scary.
At the end of my run, I jog down my street, and Jake’s silver BMW is nowhere to be seen. Maybe he took the train in from Philadelphia, I think. I am hoping not to be left alone with my father for the game, but somehow I know this is exactly what is going to happen.
When I enter the house, my dad is still alone on the couch, wearing his McNabb jersey now and watching the end of the 1:00 game. A small collection of beer bottles stand at his feet like bowling pins.
“Is Jake coming over?” I ask my father, but he ignores me again.
Upstairs, I shower and put on my Hank Baskett jersey.
When I reach the family room, the Eagles game is just coming on, so I sit down at the end of the couch my father is not occupying.
“What the hell is that noise?” Dad says, and then turns down the volume.
I realize my stomach is making crazy gurgling noises, but I say, “I don’t know,” and Dad turns up the volume again.
Just as I had hoped, the new television is an experience. The players warming up on the field look life-size, and the sound quality makes me feel as though I am in San Francisco, sitting on the fifty-yard line. Realizing that my brother is not going to make it by kickoff, when a commercial comes on, I jump to my feet and yell “Ahhhhhhhhh!” but Dad only looks at me like he wants to hit me in the face again. So I sit down and do not say anything else.
The announcers state that Donte Stallworth was a late scratch, so I start to hope Baskett will get a few more balls thrown his way, since the Eagles’ number one receiver is out of action.
The Eagles set up a nice drive and score on their first possession with a shovel pass to Westbrook, at which point my father’s emotions morph. He reaches across the couch and repetitively claps his hand against my thigh, saying over and over again, “Touchdown Eagles! Touchdown Eagles!” I start to feel hopeful for my dad, but when the Eagles kick off, he resumes his negative ways and says, “Don’t celebrate too much. Remember what happened last week.” And it is almost as if he is talking to himself, reminding himself not to be overly hopeful.
The defense holds strong, and tight end L. J. Smith scores a touchdown with only a few minutes left in the first quarter, making it 13 – 0. Even though the Eagles have blown big leads before, it seems safe to say the Birds are the superior team today. My thoughts are confirmed after Akers hits the extra point and my father jumps up and starts singing “Fly, Eagles, Fly.” So I jump up and sing with him, and we both do the chant at the end, spelling the letters with our arms and legs: “E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!”
Between quarters, my father asks me if I am hungry, and when I say yes, he orders us a pizza and brings me a Bud from the refrigerator. With the Eagles up 14 – 0, he is all smiles, and as we sip our beer, he says, “Now all we need is your boy Baskett to get a catch or two.”
As if my father’s words were a prayer answered, McNabb’s first completion in the second quarter is to Baskett for eight yards. Dad and I cheer so loudly for the undrafted rookie.
The pizza arrives during halftime, and the Eagles are up 24 – 3. “If only Jake were here,” my father says. “Then this day would be perfect.”
My dad and I have been so happy that I’ve forgotten Jake is not with us. “Where is Jake?” I ask, but Dad ignores the question.
In the third quarter the San Francisco running back fumbles on the Eagles’ one-yard line and defensive tackle Mike Patterson picks up the ball and runs toward the opposite end zone. Dad and I are out of our seats, cheering on the three-hundred-pound lineman as he runs the whole length of the field, and then the Eagles are up 31 – 3.
San Francisco scores a few touchdowns late in the second half, but it doesn’t matter, because the game is basically out of reach, and the Eagles win 38 – 24. At the conclusion of the game, my father and I sing “Fly, Eagles, Fly” and do the chant one last time, celebrating the Eagles’ victory, and then Dad simply turns off the television and returns to his study without even saying goodbye to me.
The house is so quiet.
Maybe a dozen or so beer bottles on the floor, the pizza box is still on the coffee table, and I know the sink is stacked full of dishes and the pan in which Dad cooked his breakfast steak. Since I am practicing being kind, I figure I should at least clean up the family room so Mom won’t have to do it. I carry the Bud bottles out to the recycle bucket by the garage and throw away the pizza box in the outside garbage can. Back inside, a few used napkins are on the floor, and when I reach down to pick up the mess, I spot a crumpled ball of paper under the coffee table.
I pick up the ball, uncrumple it, and realize it is not one but two pieces of paper. Mom’s handwriting emerges. I flatten the papers out on the coffee table.
I need to tell you I will no longer allow you to disregard the decisions we make together, nor will I allow you to talk down to me any longer – especially in front of others. I have met a new friend who has encouraged me to assert myself more forcefully in an effort to gain your respect. Know that I am doing this to save our marriage.
Return the monstrous television you purchased, and everything will go back to normal.
Keep the monstrous television, and you must agree to the following demands:
You must eat dinner at the table with Pat and me five nights a week.
You must go on a half-hour walk with either Pat or me five nights a week.
You must have a daily conversation with Pat, during which you ask him at least five questions and listen to his replies, which you will report to me nightly.
You must do one recreational activity a week with Pat and me, such as eating at a restaurant, seeing a movie, going to the mall, shooting baskets in the backyard, etc.
Failure to complete either option 1 or 2 will force me to go on strike. I will no longer clean your house, buy or cook your food, launder your clothes, or share your bed. Until you declare which option you wish to take, consider your wife on strike.
With best intentions,
It does not seem like Mom to be so forceful with Dad, and I do wonder if her “new friend” coached her through the writing of the two-page letter. It is very hard for me to picture Dad returning his new television, especially after watching the Eagles win on the new set. His purchase will be considered good luck for sure, and Dad will want to watch next week’s Eagles game on the same television so he will not jinx the Birds, which is understandable. But the demands Mom made – especially the one where Dad has to talk to me every night – also seem incredibly improbable, although I do think it would be nice to eat dinner together as a family and maybe even go out to a restaurant, but not to the movies, since I am now only willing to watch the movie of my own life.
Suddenly I need to speak with my brother, but I do not know his phone number. I find the address book in the cabinet above the stove and place a call to Jake’s apartment. A woman picks up on the third ring; her voice is beautiful.
“Hello?” she says.
I know it is not my brother on the other end, but I still say, “Jake?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Pat Peoples. I’m looking for my brother, Jake. Who are you?”
I hear the woman cover the phone with her hand, and then my brother’s voice comes through loud and clear: “Did you see that ninety-eight-yard fumble return? Did you see Patterson run?”
I want to ask about the woman who answered my brother’s phone, but I am a little afraid of finding out who she is. Maybe I should already know, but forget somehow. So I simply say, “Yeah, I saw it.”
“Frickin’ awesome, dude. I didn’t know a defensive tackle could run that far.”
“Why didn’t you come over and watch the game with Dad and me?”
“I can’t lie to my brother. Mom called me this morning and told me not to come, so I went to a bar with Scott. She called Ronnie too. I know because Ronnie called me to make sure everything was okay. I told him not to worry.”
“Should he be worried?”
“No, why did Mom tell you and Ronnie not to come over?”
“She said it would give you a chance to be alone with Dad. She said it would force Dad to talk to you. So did he?”
“Well, that’s good, right?”
“I found a note from Mom to Dad.”
“I found a note from Mom to Dad.”
“Okay. What did it say?”
“I’ll just read it to you.”
I read him the note.
“Shit. Go Mom.”
“You know he won’t be taking the television back now, right?”
“Not after the Birds won today.”
“Yeah, and I’m worried that Dad won’t be able to meet the demands.”
“Well, he probably won’t, but maybe he’ll at least try, right? And trying would be good for him – and Mom.”
Jake changes the subject by mentioning Baskett’s catch in the second quarter, which turned out to be his only catch of the game. My brother doesn’t want to talk about our parents anymore. He says, “Baskett’s coming along. He’s an undrafted rookie, and he’s getting catches. That’s huge.” But it doesn’t feel huge to me. Jake says he’s looking forward to seeing me next Monday night, when the Eagles will play the Green Bay Packers. He asks me to have lunch in the city before we tailgate with Scott and the fat men, and then we hang up.
It’s getting late, and my mother is still not home.
I begin to worry about her, and so I do all the dishes by hand. For a good fifteen minutes – with steel wool – I scrub the pan my father burned. And then I vacuum the family room. Dad had splattered some pizza sauce on the couch, so I find some cleaning spray in the hall cabinet and do my best to remove the stain – dabbing lightly and then wiping a little harder in a circular motion, just like it says on the side of the bottle. My mom comes home as I am on my knees cleaning the couch.
“Did your father tell you to clean up his mess?” Mom asks.
“No,” I say.
“Did he tell you about the letter I wrote him?”
“No – but I found it.”
“Well, then you know. I don’t want you to do any cleaning, Pat. We’re going to let this place rot until your father gets the message.”
I want to tell her I found the “Pat” box in the attic, how hungry I was today, that I really don’t want to live in a filthy house, and I need to take one thing at a time – finding the end of apart time first and foremost – but Mom looks so determined and almost proud. So I agree to help her make the house filthy. She says we will be eating takeout, and when my father is not home, everything will be as it was before she wrote the note, but when my father is home, we will be slovenly. I tell Mom that while she is on strike, she can sleep in my bed, because I want to sleep in the attic anyway. When she says she’ll sleep on the couch, I insist she take my bed, and she thanks me.
“Mom?” I say when she turns to leave.
She faces me.
“Does Jake have a girlfriend?” I ask.
“I called him today, and a woman answered the phone.”
“Maybe he does have a girlfriend,” she says, and then walks away.
The indifference Mom shows regarding Jake’s love life makes me feel as though I am forgetting something. If Jake had a girl friend Mom did not know about, she would have asked me a million questions. Her lack of interest suggests that Mom is keeping another secret from me, maybe something larger than what I found in the “Pat” box. Mom must be protecting me, I think, but I still want to know from what.