Comrade Drena and I sat at an Atlantic City boardwalk clam bar. I’m not one for clams, or bars, but she liked a California Sour with her lunch, and she was known there. She was liked there. Nothing upsetting occurred there. She frequented places like this in Atlantic City, or around Rittenhouse Square in Philly, because the restaurant staff treated her warmly. There had never been a glowering glance from a manager in that place, no overheard trip words spoken by a waitress at a neighboring table. Comrade Drena—Mom—had a tuning-fork psyche.
“This is my son,” she said with maternal pride to the middle-aged waitress when she arrived at our table.
“Your mom talks about you a lot,” the waitress said. She took our drink orders—whiskey and orange juice for Mom, diet soda for me—and then she was gone.
My mother had the usual questions for me: “How is your grandmother?” and “Any budding romance on the horizon?” and “When is the last time you heard from your father?”
And I had my usual collection of questions I didn’t want to ask. “Are you taking your medicine?” and “Has there been any trouble lately?” and “What the hell are you doing in that drug- and prostitute-riddled hotel?” Instead, I asked her about her art, her own writing, and about Rocco, her devoted husband, former jazz record and current commercial producer who kept a home base for her in the Philadelphia suburbs.
It was summer, 1994; I was twenty-eight; Mom was fifty; and just then no dark cards seemed to be on the table.
Comrade Drena and I sat by the window, me in one of my Nehru-collared button-downs and khaki shorts, she in a hunter’s vest over one of her tie-dyed tees with its bedazzled Native American designs.
The bedazzled tee evoked the groovier ’60s, happier times when she was a young mother and a popular Midwestern art professor’s wife. Her vest was a body-purse with all its pockets assigned for cigarettes and lighters, eyeglasses, money, hotel keys, a notepad, and, usually, a pen. Also lipstick, and still she wished there were more pockets for her to carry additional accoutrements during her Tarot-card missions around town.
We traded a “You look good,” for a “So do you.” But I romanticized my mother’s beauty and saw her as an exiled princess (a fantasy stripped from her by her disease), a wanderer who could be found in posh bars around Philly, living for periods in inner-city and Main Line apartments, as well as seedy hotels and boarding houses at the shore. Peripatetic, she was, in states of mind and residence. She had spent time in the Roundhouse jail up in the city, had had rooms in mental institutions in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. “Ancora was the best,” she once told me. “I had a good time there.”
All of her trials showed in her tall, frail body and on her Suzanne Pleshette-esque face. A glance at her eyes revealed that she had been in many a bad place.
We didn’t linger over the menus. We both had our usuals in places like that, so when the waitress returned with our drinks, Mom ordered her chef’s salad and I ordered a club sandwich, no mayo, extra pickles.
She said to the waitress, “He was like this as a little kid. He always had to have lots of pickles.”
Mention of my childhood agitated me, jostled me, was an emotional pothole. I was like a long-haul trucker, my psychological trailer packed with childhood memories sealed into gray crates. The one labeled “health” held tens of thousands of insulin needles used to manage the failure of my pancreas, malfunctioning since I was two. A battered box was marked “Days with Dad,” and one side was black and blue and purple from when I was four; there were only a restrained few other physical bruises—Dad became expert at inflicting pain without leaving marks—but all the sides were caved in as a result. There were several boxes marked “Mom” from different years, but one of the larger ones was filled with the phones I used to connect with her after she fled when I was six. It was crammed with rotary phones, princess phones, novelty phones, payphones, and all their tangled wires. If you were to pick up one of those phones marked “Children’s Hospital of St. Louis” and put the receiver to your ear and listen closely, you would hear me saying, “I like it here. Everything is so normal here. Nobody is mad at me here.”
Of course there were happy memories, many. But if you looked inside those containers, all the images were blurred, as though I couldn’t keep focus, couldn’t enjoy the moment, was always casting about for the next something-dreadful that was about to befall me.
The driver in me kept on truckin’, radio blaring, ever-pushing through late night hours toward easier-to-reach destinations. I was repurposing my emotional cargo, reshaping it into thrillers after years of writing science fiction and fantasy. I couldn’t bear to unlatch the doors and peer deeply into all those contraband containers. Yet.
“So, Comrade Drena, what’s new?”
“I love it when you call me that,” she said.
I could no longer remember when I first used the nickname. It must have been during a moment of lighthearted commentary on one of her manic missions. Was it the one where she took the train to Florida and wandered Tampa on foot? She had sent me a gift-shop shark’s tooth as a memento, a reminder of her taking me to Jaws during a summer visitation. Perhaps it meant something more to her, in that state, a talisman of unspecified powers.
Did the nickname originate from one of the times she drifted aloft on the streets of Philly, sending Western Unions to the FBI offices there? Did it go all the way back to when she, broken by my father, left and taught me how to use coded language in case our mails were intercepted?
The term “agent” never seemed appropriate because she had always maintained that she worked making predictions for the authorities, and I didn’t want to validate her belief. “Comrade” fit better, because the nickname represented that we shared the impression that what she did was exotic, clandestine, spy-like even, with an international flair just to make it fun.
In the clam bar, she lit one of her Virginia Slims and her hands shook, and I wondered if it was the medicine, or if she was off her medicine, or whether it was something long-term and physical that was afflicting her. Quietly, casually, I monitored her state to see if it was the Mom who was trapped in an alternate, overlapping universe where she was connected to everything in ways that gently spanned the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Or was I sitting with the self-aware, self-deprecating mother with just the slightest shades of depression and mania around her edges?
Waitress gone, she said, “I like the hair. Did you do that for the jacket cover?”
“The jacket cover is a very long way away,” I said. I’d only just had the call from the agent who said she loved my main character, saw a whole series with her, but wanted me to rewrite the manuscript.
I said, “My haircutter suggested the streaking. She has purple hair. Did I make a mistake listening to her?”
“No,” Mom said. “It looks…good. And fluffy. Mind if I touch it?” She reached over and brushed the top of my head.
I’d given myself a shot well in advance of lunch, the insulin was starting to kick in, and not being able to successfully flag the waitress down, I took advantage of this to break the awkwardness and headed up to the bar where two fatigue-clad female soldiers were having drinks. I ordered a sugar soda, iceless so I could down it more quickly.
Having just seen Mom’s gesture, one of the soldiers said, “I like your hair, too.”
I was too shaky for any “be all that you can be” kind of feeling. It wouldn’t have mattered if I were in top form, anyway. At best I was cute, not studly, and these two could have tossed me around like a catnip mouse.
The second soldier asked, “May I touch it, too?”
While I waited for my glass of sugar soda to rescue me from approaching insulin shock, they took turns patting the top of my fluffy streaked hair. All I had in reply was a “thank you,” and a walk back to the table with a ginger ale. I drank and awaited caloric relief.
“I’m so proud of you,” Mom said.
There was no need to interrupt a compliment, so I hit the ginger ale some more.
“I mean the agent. You know getting one is the hard part.”
“I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for you,” I said. Before I attempted to write novels in my mid-teens, my priority with words was keeping up with, and often managing the moods of, the larger and more experienced animal in the houses I lived in: my father.
Comrade Drena said, “When I saw your first paintings—remember those watercolors?—I just knew you were meant to be a writer.”
She was earnest, for a moment, until I blew soda through my nose in laughter. She saw that laughter and raised me a louder version until we were both shaking and shuddering in mother-son paroxysms that had not been witnessed since Oedipus hooked up with Jocosta.
“Sorry,” she said, sniffled, dabbed her eye with her napkin. “You know what I mean.”
Laughter, private or public, was not rare between us. Neither was the aftershock of chuckles which followed and didn’t die away until the waitress arrived with the food.
“She must like you,” Mom said when she saw the plentiful side dish of pickles.
The past few minutes confirmed what I already felt confident about. Comrade Drena was not off. Laughter that light-hearted did not come from someone in the grip of fervent mania or cement-shoe depression. She was fine. The watchman inside me could never fully relax, but he could at least sit back, now, and glance out the window and take note of how different this shore town was from the vacation-oriented ones further south. There were not so many belly boards, beach chairs or coolers being carried across the boardwalk. Atlantic City did not have the rich scent of suntan lotion. It had the reek of savings and Social Security payments being evacuated into the ocean of slot machines and card tables.
She kept coming here because there were restaurants and bars aplenty for her to turn Tarot cards and offer fortunes for those who lost bucket-loads of their future the night before. She could meet people, observe people, peer back into her childhood. Something happened back in the late fifties, when she was fourteen, in one of the old hotels that still stands. She’d shared only dribs about her boilermaker father and drabs about one of the hotel employees at the foot of her bed: the first approaches towards sexual assault, her vague recollections of being toweled off on the bathroom floor. Mom, I suspected, was doing psychological investigative work here, her psyche jarred by her repeated returns to the scene of the crimes against her.
“How’s the sandwich?” she asked. “Did they leave the mayo off?”
We ate. We talked. We chuckled. She told me about an upcoming outdoor craft show she and her bedazzled tie-dyes were going to be part of. She talked about her morning coffee buddies—a mixed-gendered metal detector group who combed the Atlantic City beach for riches. She told me about the cop who spotted her alone at the McDonald’s, disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a rose and an hour of conversation with her.
“I thought you had a problem with cops,” I said.
“Not down here. I don’t have a bad reputation down here. Yet. And not this cop. He was handsome. And I just happened to look good that day.”
Mom had a post-lunch cigarette and another California Sour; I had a post-prandial weariness. I paid, gave a thankful tip, and we headed back to the front step of her temporary residence. The hotel had a halfway-house quality with its uneven floors, poorly illuminated hallways and musty smell. At best, it could be called a home for the adrift. But I suspected—though Comrade Drena denied—that it was home to many more vices than I could have named.
“I suppose you don’t want to come back up,” she said.
“No. Thanks.” The place was such a dive, such a drop from her childhood in Philadelphia’s affluent Drexel Park, the quaint Cape Cod-style house of our shared time in St. Louis, her Rittenhouse Square apartment, her Parkway apartments, I was getting the bends.
She must have read the disdain on my face and said, “Don’t worry about me. My ship is coming in.” It was not the first time she said this. I had been hearing it as far back as I could remember. Her predictions for the FBI would pay off, her tarot readings for powerful people, her close relationship with a man whom she referred to only as “Apache Joe.”
“You’ll see,” she said.
We took the few strides to the parking lot of her fleabag hotel and stood by my car. We had always stood on islands of wish-fulfillment fantasy. She had always aided the land-reclamation of my daydreams by encouraging my writing. What good would come from washing away her own beliefs?
“Let me give you a kiss,” she said, knowing I needed warning before anyone made physical contact with me. When she leaned down to kiss me, she was a shaky cat, her hands were cold. She was too frail to have endured all that her betrayers, and her illness, had put her through.
“Love you,” Mom said.
“Love you,” I called back as we drifted apart in the parking lot.
“Call me when you get home,” she said.
Comrade Drena headed for the hotel’s front step.
When I got home to my grandmother and grand-aunt’s place in Ocean City, I would sit down to work on my manuscript revision, a thriller that was the love-child of John Grisham and Stephen King. A lady psychic—lady, not just a female, not a woman who is psychic—saved an off-kilter president from having himself assassinated. Mom would be up in her room, spreading cards to predict for me, for herself, for political events in the news. Me, turning out pages, and Comrade Mom, turning over cards, were doing all we could to set things right in the world.
[Editor’s note: When we accepted this story for publication, we received the type of news you never want to hear. Sean Toner’s wife, Robin, informed us, in reply to the acceptance letter, that Sean had passed away just weeks before. With Robin’s blessing, in memory and honor of Sean, we’re publishing this essay. This is his second piece with us; the beautiful “Graveside Nuptials” appeared in Sept. 2012, and then, later, in our Selected Memories anthology. Sean is part of our family. Our hearts are with Robin and Sean’s other relatives and loved ones. His words are gift to us all.]
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jay F Kay