Saint Cosme — David Amadio
Royce Demarco hadn’t seen his parents in over two months. He was out of work and had some time on his hands, so he decided to pay them a visit. On a Thursday afternoon in late March he drove down from Philadelphia to the shore town of Ventnor, where Mr. and Mrs. Demarco lived in a weathered bungalow on the bay block of Nashville Avenue, the same house they had lived in for the past thirty years.
Royce parked in the driveway (his parents no longer owned a car) and fetched his overnight bag from the back seat. He entered the house without knocking and found his mother Philomena standing in the kitchen, indecisive with a skillet. She had on a floral print apron, blue polyester slacks, and orthopedic shoes the color of wet sand. Royce could tell that she hadn’t been to the hairdresser’s in a while because the gray was showing through her dye job.
When Philomena saw her son she let the skillet fall to the floor and rushed to embrace him. “Just in time for dinner,” she said.
Royce hugged her back, though with half his mother’s vigor.
“How is your wife?” she asked, still squeezing him.
“I’m divorced,” said Royce. “Remember?”
“How are the kids, then?”
“I don’t have kids, mom.”
Satisfied with his answers, Philomena broke away to mind the stove. She lifted the lid from a pot of tomato gravy, the thick red sauce bubbling like magma, and stirred it slowly with a wooden spoon, turning over a cluster of meatballs.
Royce bent down to pick up the skillet and saw that his mother’s shoes were on the wrong feet. He shook his head and sighed as he placed the skillet on the counter.
Just then his father came in from the den carrying a bottle of red wine. Pat Demarco was a short, dark, solid man with gray hair and a gray mustache. He looked nothing like the tall and fair-skinned Royce, who took after his maternal grandfather, Albert.
“What the hell fell?” said Pat in a husky voice. He looked at his son but made no gesture of welcome. He set the wine on the kitchen table and tore a hunk of bread from the stale, half-eaten loaf resting on the butcher’s block.
“Find a job?” he asked, jamming the bread into his mouth.
“Not yet,” said Royce.
While Pat was opening the wine, Royce went back to his old bedroom, which his parents had converted into a guest room years ago. It was cold and dark and a salty film covered everything from the bedspread to the walls. He recalled many sleepless nights in the damp, sticky room, listening to his father saw the house in half with his snoring. To spare him the same, Royce had brought earplugs. After unpacking his bag and putting his clothes away in the dresser, he opened the storage capsule and shook the earplugs into his palm: they looked like foam bullets. He inserted them into his ears one at a time and measured the effect, the inner quiet. It was like suddenly having eyelids for one’s ears. He left them in until his mother, her voice an oppressed holler, called him in to dinner.
Royce ate a large bowl of Rigatoni and two meatballs. The pasta was overcooked and the meatballs were heavy on the parsley. He didn’t say anything to his mother because he didn’t have to. The old man was good for that.
“This macaroni’s like mush,” jabbed Pat, the tips of his mustache stained purple from the wine.
Philomena slipped a tiny piece of meatball into her mouth and chewed it with her head down. Her cooking had always been good, but now, with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s (the “early stage,” her doctor had said), preparing even simple meals confused her.
“I still have my teeth,” Pat continued. “I like to use them when I eat.”
Twice he asked Royce if he wanted a glass of wine, and both times Royce refused. Though he was almost forty, Royce had never acquired a taste for wine. Beer and hard liquor he drank, at times to excess, but wine just wasn’t his thing.
“How about you?” and Pat tilted the bottle toward his wife. She flinched as if it were an eel in his hand and not a cheap Merlot. He teased her by moving the bottle back and forth, chuckling drunkenly each time she cringed.
“It’s just more for me,” said Pat, and he poured himself another glass.
When they had finished, Pat and Royce retired to the den. Pat wanted to show Royce the wine closet he had built. He boasted that the closet had only taken him a day to complete, and that he had done the work himself, without any outside help.
The den was a dank, cavernous room at the rear of the house. There was a black leather sofa, two recliners, a coffee table, and an old tube television. Royce sat on the edge of the table and observed his father’s wine closet—if one could even call it that. Pat had merely removed the door from an existing closet and installed—by way of ball-peen hammer and roofing nails—three shelves of scrap cedar. Reaching inside, Pat yanked an old white shoelace and a naked bulb protruding from the closet’s left wall cast a hard, unflattering light on the bottles. They were stacked side-by-side on top of each other, like in a real wine closet. Some were standing on the top shelf, as if ready to jump. It was about the shoddiest and most ill-conceived thing Royce had ever seen.
“What was in there before?” he asked, trying to remember.
“A bunch of your mother’s old shit. Who knows?”
“Have you always liked wine this much?” asked Royce.
“Not since your mother got sick.” Pat sat down in one of the recliners to watch boxing on T.V.
“When was the last time mom went to the doctor’s?”
“And what did they say?”
“’Keep an eye on her.’”
“Why?” Pat echoed. “Because she feeds the stray cats blueberries, she forgets to put on her bra, she wanders off.”
“Where does she go?”
“How the hell should I know?” Pat replied. “I don’t follow her.”
Royce breathed deeply and told himself that his hatred for his father was only temporary, that in a few seconds it would pass.
“Has she been taking her medication?” he asked.
“No. It made her throw up.”
“Well, if she was taking the pills then maybe she wouldn’t wander off.”
“She wanders,” Pat reiterated, “but she always comes back.”
The next morning, Philomena cooked Royce a lopsided omelet stuffed with odd ingredients he could not identify by sight or taste. He choked down two forkfuls and took his coffee in the living room.
He hadn’t slept well. The meatballs had given him agita and his earplugs were no match for the gnaw of Pat’s apnea. He felt groggy and twisted and flat. As he sipped his coffee, he looked at the book of crossword puzzles his mother had been prescribed to keep her brain sharp. The spine of the book was stiff, and only one puzzle had been completed, faintly, in pencil. Royce knew that he should have felt pity for his mother, but he resented her more. She was doing nothing to counteract the effects of her disease. She was content to let it kill her. She’s going to let it walk all over her, thought Royce, just like she lets him walk all over her. There was little in life she knew better than how to suffer. Her death would be no different.
“We need bread!” cried Philomena, chuffing through the living room. She slung a large gray pocketbook over her shoulder and opened the front door.
“I’m coming,” said Royce, getting up.
“No,” she said. “You stay here and finish your coffee. I’ll be right back.”
Royce wavered, then asked, “Are you wearing a bra?”
Philomena’s head shot back and sat rigid on her stout neck. “What kind of question is that to ask your mother?”
Royce thought it was a perfectly reasonable question after what his father had told him the night before, but he let her go without pursuing the matter further. He stood by the front window and watched her small, vulnerable figure turn the corner at the top of the street. Then he sat back down on the couch with his coffee turning cold in his lap and waited.
The deli was only a five-minute walk from the house. After twenty minutes had passed and Philomena had still not come back, Royce began to worry. Maybe she stopped to talk someone, he thought. He stood and looked out the front window, nervously picking a chip in the handle of his mug. He willed it, but Philomena did not turn the corner.
In the kitchen, his father was pulling a bag of raw chicken necks from the refrigerator.
“Mom’s still not home,” Royce said.
Pat took a nylon jacket from a hook by the door and casually put it on. “I told you last night that she always comes back.” Toting his bag of necks, he walked out to the garage and wadded up a length of twine cinched at one end to a crab trap.
“No food in the damn house,” he mumbled. “Gotta’ go out and get it myself.”
Royce watched him stroll down the driveway toward the bay, flabbergasted. His mother was out roaming the streets, and his father—the son of a bitch—was going crabbing. Not content to be so ignorant, he marched up to the deli and asked the white-haired woman behind the display case if she had seen his mother. She was placing a large bowl of freshly made chicken salad into the case. Cellophane covered the bowl but Royce could see the tawny mixture through the film, and he could smell it in the air, the notes of mayonnaise and celery and dry mustard.
No, the woman had not seen his mother, but if she did she would walk her home right away.
Panicked, Royce searched the avenue, a block in either direction, then ran back down his parents’ street, shivering, headed for the bay. A black-hooded seagull perched on a piling gave out a long peal of laughter before beating its wings and skimming the water to light in the tall brown marsh across the channel. Pat was hunched over the bulkhead, lowering his trap into the water. A five-gallon bucket sat by his feet.
“You’re coming with me to look for mom,” Royce demanded.
The old man snickered to himself as he wound the slack from the trap line round a crooked screw in the bulkhead. Feeling like the butt of a joke he did not understand, Royce kicked over the five-gallon bucket and a baby crab—too small to keep—scuttled onto the sidewalk. Before Pat could react, Royce picked up the crab by its carapace and tossed it into the water, its legs and pincers flailing as it landed with a dull splash. He then grabbed his father’s arm and muscled him across the street.
“What about my trap?” the old man complained
“No one’s going to touch your trap,” Royce snapped, and the sharpness in his voice alarmed him.
They drove around for close to an hour, checking places where Pat thought she might be. Iven’s Luncheonette, St. James rectory (she was a frequent guest of Father Donohue’s), the Ventnor library, the hairdresser’s. But she was not to be found in any of these places, and Royce’s fear deepened.
When he stopped at a red light in front of Perfetti’s liquor store, the sign in the window having just been flipped to the OPEN side, he could feel his father tensing with lust, bunching with stupid desire. He went to lock the doors but Pat was too fast, springing out of the car and jogging into the store. Once inside, he approached a pylon of bottles near the checkout counter and paced in front of it a few times. At one point he stopped and bounced lightly on the balls of his feet. Royce wanted to leave him there to teach him a lesson, but then he would have two parents on the street. He pulled over and waited, cursing the man’s two-bit hobby.
Pat was smiling when he got back into the car. Unable to control himself, he ripped the bottle from its black plastic bag and held it up for Royce to see.
“It’s a Chairman’s Selection,” he explained. “I was worried they would sell out before I got there.”
Royce glanced at the label: Saint Cosme, Le Post Blanc. He sensed that his father wanted him to say something about the wine, ask a question of the name or the vintage or the region. He saw that the bottle had a cap and not a cork, and all he could manage to say was, “Do me a favor and don’t open it in the car.”
They scanned the neighborhood for another fifteen minutes, then, on a hunch that his mother was safe at home, Royce sped to the bungalow. He left the car running, and Pat listened to sports talk while Royce strode through the house calling his mother’s name. He checked the garage and the back patio; he checked his bedroom and the den; he even checked the closets and underneath the beds: no Phil. The next step would have to be the police. But how should he go about it? Should he call them? Should he go to the station? And didn’t you have to wait 48 hours before filing a missing persons report?
He was just about to go outside and turn off the car when the phone rang. He answered it with a snarl: “Hello.”
“Who ‘dis?” It was the voice of a black man.
“Royce. Who am I speaking to?”
“This Andre Palmer.”
Royce knew no one named Andre Palmer, and suspected his parents didn’t either.
“What is this in reference to?” he asked.
“You know a woman named Phil?”
“Yes,” Royce exclaimed, “my mother.”
“Well, she in my living room,” and the way Andre said this, as though he were the victim, made Royce think that his mother was not in danger.
“How did she get there?”
“I don’t know,” puffed Andre. “She just came in.” He sounded suddenly irritated, put-upon. “She say she live here.”
“And where is that?” asked Royce.
“144 Georgia Avenue.”
The address immediately rang a bell: it was the house in Ducktown where Royce’s maternal grandparents had lived, the house where his mother had grown up. He hadn’t thought of it in over twenty years, and was surprised the address had come to him so quickly, as if it were waiting to be remembered.
“How did you get this number?” asked Royce.
“She gave it to me.”
“Why didn’t she call herself?”
“She said she was afraid.”
“Can I speak to her?” asked Royce.
Royce listened to the muffled exchange between Andre and his mother. The sound of a T.V. in the background made it hard for him to make out what they were saying. When Andre got back on the line his voice was louder, angrier.
“She said she don’t want to talk to nobody.”
“I don’t fuckin’ know, man. Are you comin’ to get her or what?”
“Yes, I’m coming right now,” said Royce. “Just—just don’t let her leave.”
144 Georgia Avenue, a two-story row home with vinyl siding and a covered porch, stood in the middle of what used to be Atlantic City’s Little Italy. Andre Palmer had painted the stucco façade powder blue, hung flower beds from the first-floor windows, and replaced the wooden screen door with a metal one. Parked across the street next to Thuan Thanh’s Vietnamese Market, Royce and Pat could see Philomena sitting on the living room sofa under a blanket, watching Mr. Palmer’s big-screen T.V.
“Of all the places,” Pat said.
Royce glared at his father, who was slumped in his seat with the bottle of St. Cosme propped up between his thighs.
“I blame this on you,” said Royce, and the old man waved at his son to let him be, to go on and get it over with, he would have no part.
In answer to Royce’s third knock, Andre Palmer stepped onto the porch. He was of medium height with unkempt hair and a neck full of razor bumps. Wearing bleached pajama pants and a wrinkled T-shirt, he looked like a man who has been shocked from his bed on the one morning a week he is allowed to sleep in.
Royce introduced himself and they shook hands in a loose-gripped, awkward way that hampered Royce but seemed to embolden Andre. He stood in the doorway so that Royce had to look around him to see his mother. Philomena’s eyes had not strayed from the flashing screen.
“You can go in and get her,” said Andre, scratching the bumps on his neck.
“I’ll only be a minute,” said Royce, and with gratitude he bowed past Andre into the house.
Philomena was watching a cartoon on the Disney channel with the volume cranked all the way up. Her head bobbed to the bludgeoning music, and her lips moved slightly, shaping words to a song too soft for Royce to hear. Looks like the late stage to me, he thought. He peeled back the blanket from his mother’s lap and, supporting her elbow, lifted her to her feet. “Let’s go, mom,” he said urgently, but she jerked her elbow free and stamped out the door without even acknowledging him, her only child. Royce just stood there, humiliated, slow in scooping her forgotten pocketbook from the corner of the sectional.
On the porch, he thanked Andre for his patience and the two shook hands again. This time the grip satisfied Royce; if his mother couldn’t appreciate his sacrifice, maybe Andre could.
“Did she say anything to you?” Royce asked.
“Not really. She asked who I was, asked where her parents were. That’s about it.”
Together they watched Philomena standing on the curb. She was looking westward, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun. A gust of wind off the back bay tugged her dress taut over the sag of her bosom.
“Women that old don’t wear bras, I guess,” observed Andre.
“She has Alzheimer’s,” said Royce, careful not to be too corrective. “Bra’s the first thing to go.”
He gave his mother back her pocketbook and helped her into the car, then turned and let his eyes pass over the house on Georgia Avenue. He waited for a feeling—but no feeling came, no grand swelling of memory, no sweet stab of nostalgia. Andre Palmer picked up a broom and began sweeping the porch; his father honked the horn; the present crowded Royce and pushed him forward. He did not resist.
Driving home, he couldn’t stop checking his mother in the rearview. Her brow was creased and her head was cocked to the side. Royce thought she looked agitated.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, evoking a grumble from his father.
Philomena gazed out the window and said thoughtfully, “I always knew my mother had boyfriends, but I never knew she was seein’ a black fella.”
When Pat heard this, he swung around in his seat and scowled at Philomena. “Your mother’s been dead for twenty years,” he said.
Philomena continued gazing out the window, a grin smoothing the crease in her brow. “He was a very nice man,” she said, and Royce didn’t know whether she was talking about Andre or her father.
“How did you get to Nana’s house, Mom?” he asked.
“I took the jitney,” she said.
“Did you think you were going to the deli?”
“No. I thought I was going home.”
“I see you forgot to buy bread,” gritted Pat.
“Yes,” confirmed Philomena, and then, sadly, “I’m tired.”
“You’re not tired,” said Pat. “You’re stupid.”
“She’s not stupid,” said Royce, “she’s sick.”
“Don’t tell me that!” roared Pat. “That’s just an excuse! I’m the same age as her and I still have my mind.”
The spite Royce felt for his father in this moment came on so hot and so strong that he had to clench the steering wheel with both hands to keep from putting the man’s head through the dashboard. By the time it passed they were nearing Nashville Avenue, and Royce, partly to calm his nerves and partly out of necessity, stopped at the deli and picked up a pound of chicken salad, three rolls, and a loaf of bread for later. He informed the white-haired manager that his mother had been found, and this news brought joy and relief to the woman’s simple face.
Back at the house, Pat went off to gather his crab trap and bucket, while Royce fixed the three of them chicken salad sandwiches. Instead of waiting for him to return, mother and son ate lunch without Pat, smiling at each other but saying little. After lunch, Philomena took her medication without protest and then sat on the couch with her book of crossword puzzles. Royce passed her on his way to his room as she was penciling in the first entry, her grip firm, her letters bold.
“I’m going to take a nap, mom.”
“Yes, honey. You do that.”
He shut the door to his room and sat down on the side of the bed. From the night stand he took the earplugs and stuffed one in each ear, pausing to listen to the expanding foam, a sound like steady rain. He lay down, hitched one ankle over the other, and closed his eyes, hoping for thirty minutes—an hour if he was lucky—of restful sleep.
Through the foam he heard the back door slam, and he knew that Pat was home. With his two index fingers he poked the plugs in farther, thinking that if he crammed them in deep enough he could keep the man out. But soon Royce heard the clanking of bottles coming from the den. The clanking grew very loud very quickly, and before long there was a thud, an unmooring, and finally a crash.
Royce tore out the ear plugs and ran to the den to find Pat buried to the waist under an avalanche of wood and glass, the wreckage of the wine closet. Several of the bottles had broken in their descent and were emptying their contents onto the carpet. Widening puddles of red and white wine surrounded Pat like lily-pads of blood and ichor. The old man looked around at the carnage and wept, quietly at first, then with a baby’s abandon. His wailing brought Philomena to the door. She took one look at her husband and erupted in triumphant laughter.
Seeing that his father wasn’t hurt, Royce peered into the closet. On the one shelf that had not fallen—the bottom shelf—lay an unbroken bottle of white wine, the Saint Cosme. Royce picked it up and twisted free the cap and held the bottle in front of him and examined the clear liquid within. He did not bother to smell it, he did not bother to let it breathe—he just drank, and because he liked the taste, he drank again, and because he could feel it in his blood, he drank still more, and when he had finished he handed the bottle to his father, and he drank too, and his tears stopped, and Philomena’s laughter rolled on, and Royce left the den to get a roll of paper towels, a trash bag, and two wine glasses.
David Amadio teaches Creative Writing and Composition at Lincoln University, where he also edits the campus literary magazine, SIMBAA. He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2001. His work has appeared in Talking River, Nerve Cowboy, Cleaver, Packingtown Review, and The San Francisco Examiner. He lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.