The following is from Kevin Wilson’s collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. The stories explore the fraught relationship between parents and children through wit, quirkiness, and emotional complexity. Kevin Wilson is a novelist and short story writer. His short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association, as well as the Shirley Jackson Award. He teaches at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Gina received a call from Adam, her only child, at 3 a.m., more than two months since shed last heard from him. In the dreamlike moments after she answered the phone, listening to him talk over a gaggle of voices in the background, she struggled to remember what he even looked like. She sketched and resketched her memory of his face, his dark, curly hair that framed his huge brown eyes and his costume-big nose that, even as a child, dominated his face as if he were a Muppet, and his mouth, always held in the slightest suggestion of a frown. There he was, finally, her son, in her mind, and she listened as he informed her that his band, Dead Finches, was breaking up, this very moment, and he needed to stay with her for three months.
All of our equipment got stolen, Mom, he told her. All three of my guitars, the entire drum kit, even the fucking tambourine. Right out of the goddamn trailer while we ate some dinner. We dont have the kind of money to get new stuff. Were just starting the tour, day two of the fucking tour. Were done.
One of the voices in the background, which she recognized as Marty, Adams best friend since grade school, said, Were not done, man. Dont say that.
Were done, Adam said to his mother, who had not said a single word during this entire phone call. His voice sounded far away for a second as he must have turned to Marty. Sorry, dude, were done. Im done. And if Im done, yeah, were done.
Finally, Gina spoke, her voice scratchy from sleep, sounding bitchier than she had intended. Adam, why do you need to stay with me?
Because, Jesus, Mom, Im subletting my apartment to these two European dudes while I was supposed to be on tour, and I cant go back for another three months. We signed a contract and everything, so Im kind of stuck.
Cant you stay with Marty? she asked, the desperation in her voice so clear that she didnt even try to excuse it.
Mom, I cant be around these guys right now. Its over. Were dead. I wanna be dead by myself, or with you, I guess. Just for three months.
Okay, then, she said, trying to keep him from the ragged anger that she knew was right on the surface of his entire adult life. You can come.
Im in Portland, he said. Can you get me a plane ticket to Tennessee?
Oh, God, Adam, thats going to be expensive.
Ill pay you back, he whined, and she heard the drummer, Jody, say, Get off the fucking phone, Adam. We have to talk about this.
Ill buy one, she said. For tomorrow. Ill e-mail you the details in the morning.
I love you, Mom, he said.
I love you, too, Peanut, she replied, but he had maybe already hung up. She called out, Adam? and it was clear that he was gone.
Two hundred and eighty-five dollars later, she e-mailed her son the plane ticket and realized that, in less than a day, he would be in front of her, his shoulders slumped with heavy bags filled with wrinkled clothes, guitarless. She walked into the room that had once been his, which she had turned into her office. She went through the room, collecting any important papers or financial records, and then shuffled them together and walked back to her bedroom. She opened up the gun safe that her husband, three years dead from cancer, had filled with all manner of rifles and handguns, firearms that he had never once, to her knowledge, fired.
She had taken the guns to the police department the day after the funeral, and she remembered how Adam had yelled at her for doing it. I didnt feel safe having those guns in the house without your father keeping watch over them, she had told him, but he angrily muttered obscenities and then said, Those were my birthright, without a hint of self-awareness. Adam, she knew from the earliest age, could not be trusted with anything that had the potential to ruin a life. At the very least, he said, finally coming to the truth, we could have sold them. Split it fifty-fifty.
Now, the gun safe was empty save for some jewelry, a thousand dollars in cash, and some photo albums. She placed the papers into the safe, like dropping a rock into a black hole, and closed it.
Gina took some sheets from the closet and went back into the office. She unfolded the sleeper sofa and made a bed for Adam. Unable to sleep, she sat down at the desk and booted up her computer. She went onto YouTube and typed in Dead Finches. And what came back to her, from her simple request, were hundreds of little squares of images, many of them featuring her sons dark eyes staring back at her.
Dead Finches had formed when Adam was in high school, and Gina could remember driving the entire band to Nashville for all-ages shows at Lucys Record Shop, waiting in the van until they were done. She remembered the smell of sweat coming off the boys in jagged waves, almost overpowering her, making her swerve the van if she wasnt careful. She would listen to them excitedly talk about the songs that worked and the ones that didnt. She watched, in her rearview mirror, her son smiling, his face as open and as happy as shed ever seen it before or since.
Adam decided against college, which drove his father absolutely crazy and did not surprise Gina in the slightest, and the band released two albums on their own nonexistent label and toured nonstop, Adam returning from the road looking twenty pounds lighter, his hands shaking, until Sub Pop miraculously signed them. They got more and more popular, as popular as any indie band could get, enough that people her own age had heard of the band. And then one of their songs, Baby, Youre Gonna Be Mine, was used in a beer commercial that played during the Super Bowl and subsequently made it to number seven on the Top 40, which made Adam and his friends an obscene amount of money. And it made Gina so happy, to see her son, if not happy, at least rewarded for his intense belief that he deserved attention. Adam visited when he had time or the inclination, which was almost never, but she would play his CDs on her stereo while she made dinner and she would hear the weird time capsule that kept his voice perfect and wonderful, as smooth as an R&B singers that could instantly turn sharp and punk rock.
“Adam, she knew from the earliest age, could not be trusted with anything that had the potential to ruin a life.”
The rest of the story went poorly, and Gina tried not to think of it, her husband constantly asking Adam why he needed to borrow money when the kid had a huge apartment in Portland and wore clothes so thin and plain that they had to cost hundreds of dollars to achieve that kind of simplicity. Where did those millions go, son? he would ask, and Adam would shake his head, so angry, and say, It was never millions. You always think it was millions. It was just hundreds of thousands of dollars. And its gone. Its all gone.
No one bought albums any longer, no one paid for music, and so the only money left was in licensing and touring. So Adam toured, nonstop, putting out albums only as an excuse to get back on the road. And this had been going on for nearly a decade, less and less money, Adam singing songs that sounded like things he would have thrown away when the band first started. Their last album had a song called Baby, You Are Also Gonna Be Mine, and Gina always skipped right past it when it was cued up on her iPod, had never once listened to it.
Now, in her office, she clicked on the music video for Baby, Youre Gonna Be Mine, and she watched her son strum his guitar and then sing, in that dreamlike, smooth voice, Baby, youre gonna be mine / We can leave all this sadness behind / Baby, youre gonna be mine / Until the end, the end, the end, of time. He had on a baby-blue T-shirt that had the word Gina in black, block letters printed upside down. Whered you get that shirt? she had asked him the first time shed seen the video. I had it made, he said. I spent my own money to have it made.
Why? she asked him.
Cause I love you; cause its a secret just for you, he said, smiling.
As she watched the video again, the sun now rising, she stared at her son and slowly turned him upside down in her mind, until her name was in front of her, the message received.
At the airport, she watched Adam descend the escalator; he was clicking away on his phone, not even bothering to look for her. He took three steps off the escalator, following the traffic, and she called for him, touched his arm. He put his phone away and hugged her, smiling.
How was your flight? she asked.
Okay, considering my life is over, he said. Its actually kind of nice to fly without having to deal with carrying on a fucking guitar.
Well, thats looking on the bright side, she admitted.
Its what I do best, he said.
At baggage claim, they waited for his duffel bag, olive green and stuffed so full that it seemed like his entire apartment would explode from the bag, all four walls included. Adam hefted the bag with some difficulty. Getting old, he grunted, and they walked to the parking garage and loaded the bag into Ginas car.
They settled into their seats, buckled up, and just before Gina started the engine, she turned to Adam to ask about lunch options and noticed that he was crying. Adam? she asked, but now he was shaking, sobbing, unapologetically breaking down. She reached for him. Peanut? she said.
Could you just get me home? he asked, turning away from her.
Sure, Peanut, she said, and she pulled out of the garage with some haste. When she paid the attendant, the man looked past her at Adam, still crying so loudly, and then raised his eyebrows, which seemed unprofessional to Gina.
His band just broke up, she said, and the man raised his hands as if he was being mugged but he wasnt entirely convinced.
For the entire hour-and-a-half drive home, Adam cried, stuttering sobs; at times it seemed that he had calmed, his moans drying out and normalizing, before he would start up again. It seemed to Gina, from having watched a few movies on the topic, that he was trying to kick a heroin habit, the way he contorted his body, still belted to his seat, into so many different positions. Was it withdrawal or loss that was causing him such unhappiness? She only knew that, if she had lost the one thing that had mattered to her, she might react the same way. But no, she admitted, probably not this extravagant grief. Not her.
When they finally made it home, idling in the driveway, Gina unbuckled her seat belt and leaned over to Adam. Peanut, she said, hugging him, rubbing his back. Were home. Youre home, and itll all be okay.
He looked at her finally, his face so blotchy that it looked like he was deathly allergic to his own sadness. I think I should sleep, he said. Im really tired is all.
Youre not hungry? she asked.
Im more tired than I am hungry, he said. He unbuckled his seat belt, adjusted his neck with several deliberate movements, and then stepped out of the car, already walking to the front door. His gait suggested that he was sleepwalking and could not be disturbed, so Gina awkwardly hopped out of the car, fumbling with her keys, and ran ahead of him to unlock the front door, which she pushed open just in time so that Adam didnt even have to break stride.
I turned your room into my office, Peanut, she said, calling to him as he ascended the stairs. But theres a sofa bed and a closet for your stuff. I made it all up for you.
He raised his hand, like he was pledging an oath, his back still to her, still rising to the top floor, and Gina leaned against the frame of the front door. She watched him shuffle into the office, quietly shut the door, and Gina waited for a few minutes to make sure that nothing was going wrong, listened carefully for more crying. Finding only silence, she remembered his bag in the car. She went back to the trunk, struggled with the bag, the awkward, sharp bulges banging against her legs, and finally deposited it at the foot of the steps. She was breathing hard, the tenseness of the situation finally overwhelming her. Though she never napped, she walked to her own bedroom, pulled down the sheets, and climbed, fully clothed, into the bed and fell into a dreamless, deep sleep.
When she awoke, it was six in the evening, and she listened to the sound of activity downstairs, which startled her. She walked into the kitchen to find Adam moving from the stove back to the kitchen counter, a whirl of activity. The air smelled of rosemary and rendered fat.
Mom! Adam shouted over the sound of sizzling meat. Im making dinner. Sit down. Its almost ready.
Still dazed from sleeping the day away, Gina went to the dining room table, where she could watch as Adam took a flank steak, which had been in her freezer that morning, and expertly sliced it into thin strips. He then used a bread knife to cut open several dinner rolls and then slathered them with some kind of mustard sauce before topping it with spinach.
When did you learn to cook? she called out to him.
I mostly watch cooking shows, he said. It calms me to watch people make food. I pick stuff up now and again. This is flank steak, marinated in olive oil and rosemary, with a mustard-tarragon sauce and arugula on a baguette. But you didnt have any tarragon or arugula or baguette, so I improvised.
I dont keep that kind of stuff on hand, she said.
Its okay. We can stock up tomorrow, he answered as he plated and served the meal, which apparently was only going to be these steak sandwiches and some potato chips that he had taken out of the freezer, where Gina kept them to make sure they stayed fresh. Adam was watching her, smiling broadly, waiting for her to try it, so she took a bite of the sandwich and was amazed by how good it was. The steak was perfectly cooked and the rosemary made it taste much fancier than anything she would have made.
Its wonderful, Peanut, she said, and he shrugged, still smiling.
Its that British chefs recipe, he said.
The mean one? she asked.
No, not him. The young one. Hes real handsome.
I dont know any handsome British chefs, she replied, but Adam seemed not to hear her. He was trembling, not touching his sandwich, twisting his head from side to side as if trying to assuage a crick in his neck.
Are you okay, Peanut? she asked, and he again seemed not to hear. She took another bite of her sandwich, which was still delicious, and ate a handful of cold potato chips. Finally, Adam turned to her and said, Did you say something?
I asked if you were okay.
I am. Im fine. Im happy. I. . . never mind.
No, what? Gina asked.
I found some coke in my bag that I didnt even know I had, just a tiny amount, but I took it and its made me feel a lot better.
Oh, Peanut, you cant be doing that here, she said.
I dont do coke, he said, as if she didnt understand, never understood. Thats why it was so weird to find it. I mean, I used to do it a lot, but Id stopped a while back, but it just turned up in my bag. Its good that the airport guys didnt find it, huh? Actually, it gives me some reservations about the thoroughness of their work, if they cant find drugs in peoples bags. What else are they missing, you know?
You cant do drugs in my house. I cant have you doing that to yourself, she said, knowing that, if he refused or promised but then backslid, there was little that she would actually do to punish him. He was an adult. What could she do? Shed taken him back into her home. It seemed impossible to send him back out.
He might, she now realized, never leave.
I wont. I promise. Its gone now, the coke. I just needed something to get over the trauma of the band breaking up. These three months are going to be therapeutic, I think. I can get my life in order and then, when I go back to Portland, Ill be ready for what comes next.
The thought of Adam going through her kitchen, turning her nights into days, forever present in a house that she had gotten used to being alone in, once again made her nervous. She had not considered the physical presence of him, his body always arranged on a piece of furniture with such apathy and sloth that it seemed barely able to hold his liquid form.
I do want you to rest, to get yourself back in a good frame of mind, Gina said, already prepared for the rest of the evening to be ruined. But I think three months is long enough that you should look for work.
Adam paused, considering his mothers advice, and then picked up his sandwich. He took a small bite, nodded his approval, and then set the sandwich back down. What now? he said.
A job, maybe? she asked.
Well, I just took that coke, so I wont pass any drug tests for a while. Maybe in a month or so I can look. Ill check online.
Well, I know Martha Morgans son runs a landscaping company. I dont think, if I asked her to tell him that you need work, that hed make you do a drug test. He runs it all himself. I dont think hes set up for drug testing.
Landscaping, Adam said, nodding. He did not seem able to blink. Maybe. Sure, maybe.
This was as much as Gina could ask for on the first day of Adams return home. He was no longer crying uncontrollably. He was considering work. He had made dinner. Gina would accept this with gratitude.
The next day, Gina let Adam sleep as long as he wanted, and she started to return to her daily routine. She realized, with some embarrassment, that there was little that anchored her to the world. She ate and kept her house cleaned. She watched some TV. She played card games on the computer, though Adams presence in the office now kept her from that particular pleasure. She had never had many friends; her husband was her closest confidant, and even he was sometimes so distant from her. But somehow, someway, she had made a life for herself without her husband, without her son, and she had carefully cultivated it. Now, with Adam in the house, his twisted form snoring beneath thin sheets in his old bedroom, she realized how sad her life might seem to him. Then she realized that Adam, in his state of grief, would probably not notice the particulars of her routine. She was safe from scrutiny, an unintended benefit of her sons self-absorption.
She wiped down the kitchen counter and rearranged the pantry; at half past one, she heard Adam making noise up- stairs. He was excavating, searching, she could tell by the sound of objects being precariously lifted and dropped. A few minutes later, she heard the strumming of a guitar, and she took it as a cue to check on him.
“She had not considered the physical presence of him, his body always arranged on a piece of furniture with such apathy and sloth that it seemed barely able to hold his liquid form.”
When she opened the door, Adam reacted as if he had been abusing himself. The reverberation of the last plucked string echoed in the silence between them. Finally, Adam said, I found my old guitar. He held it up, a childs model, comically small in Adams giant hands.
I see. Im glad I kept it, she replied. What was that you were playing?
Nothing much, he said, blushing. Its just a slowed-down version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I find it helps calm me down.
Cyndi Lauper? Gina asked, feeling confident that she had it right.
Adam nodded, though Gina could not tell if he was happy or sad that she knew the song. Then, like a funeral dirge, Adam began to strum the guitar again and sing, I come home, in the morning light, my mother says when you gonna live your life right, his voice so clean and sad that it made Gina want to cry. Adam then stopped playing, considered something, and plucked a tune that was jangly and fast, fingerpicking without effort. Bob Dylan, he said to his mother, and then he sang, It dont even matter to me where youre wakin up tomorrow / But, Mama, youre just on my mind.
You know a lot of mother songs, she remarked.
Well, he said, continuing to play the guitar, I dont think thats his biological mother that hes referring to. He played a little longer, then nodded. Maybe, though. Interesting enough.
I like Bob Dylan, she offered.
Thats what I should have done from the beginning, he said. Solo. Just me and my guitar. It would have been so much easier. I wouldnt have to split the money. Wouldnt have to share the women. Wouldnt have to drive around in some beat-up van with people I hate. Wouldnt have to share the spotlight.
Gina thought that Adam had rarely shared the spotlight, even in a band. She could not imagine what his life would have been like if it had been only him in the music videos. Though she allowed that he had always deserved the attention, had been the unique talent in the band.
So, Adam finally said, putting the guitar on the bed. How is this going to work?
How is what going to work? she asked.
This, he said, gesturing to the walls of the room. You and me in the house together. Do we divide up the chores? Do you give me an allowance? Do I have a curfew? Do we watch TV together every night?
Youre an adult now, Peanut, she replied. Im happy to have you here for the time being. But Im on a fixed income. I cant give you much money. I think its best if you look for a job, something to keep you busy, so youre not just stuck in the house all day. And youll have some spending money while you figure out what youre going to do next.
I bet if I played a few solo concerts in Nashville, I could make some good money, he said, eyeing the old, child-sized guitar, wondering if it would hold up to a performance or two.
I think you need to take a little break from music. Just get things in order so that, when its time to go back to your place in Portland, youre mentally prepared for your new life.
I dont have any other skills, Mom, he said, defiantly. Ive played music since I was a teenager. I dont have a college diploma. I havent had a nine-to-five job ever.
Well, I know you could get this landscaping job. You used to cut our grass, she offered.
Fuck, Adam said softly, shaking his head. It was clear to Gina that he thought she didnt understand his particular unhappiness, but he was wrong. She understood exactly what was happening, that he had devoted his life to something that had ended before he was ready. And now he was alone. She knew this. She knew what it felt like. She also knew there was nothing to be done for it. You simply picked something else and lived with it.
Youll be outside, working with your hands. Youll make some money. Youll be tired at the end of the day and youll sleep well.
It sounds so awful, he admitted, but, fine, okay, Ill do it.
Good, she said. Now she would call an old friend that she did not know very well anymore and beg for a job for her son. It would be humiliating, to ask the favor, to admit that her son was in need of some kind of structure. But it would clear up the space in the house, would reduce the amount of time that they were together, wondering where they went wrong.
Can I have an advance on my pay? Adam asked. Id like to buy some beer today.
Gina went to find her purse, and she heard Adam again playing that pressed-wood guitar, exorcising sounds from it that were so carelessly perfect.
Three days later, Gina packed a lunch for Adam as he waited on the front porch for his ride to work. He wore a pair of hiking shorts and a stained gray T-shirt that said JESSE JACKSON FOR PRESIDENT in red letters. He had covered himself in so much sunscreen that he looked like some kind of cave-dwelling creature, unused to light.
Im nervous, he admitted, when Gina brought him the minicooler, fruit, bologna sandwiches, two bags of chips, some granola bars, a bottle of Gatorade. I feel like the technology of lawn care has gone right past me and I wont be able to keep up with the other guys. I havent mowed a lawn since I was a teenager. I can just see all the other guys showing me how to use the weedeater and laughing behind my back.
Staring at him in his tiny shorts, his legs so pale and, strangely, hairless, Gina felt the stabbing pain of not being able to control the life of your child. It was like he was five years old, waiting for the bus to take him to kindergarten. He had that same lost, faraway look on his face, trying so hard to reassure Gina that he wasnt terrified. She wanted to hug him. So she did. She leaned down and kissed his cheek, holding him for as long as he would allow. Youll be fine, she said.
I better be, Adam said, softly.
It had been a huge embarrassment, calling Martha Morgan, asking for charity. Well, Tyler is always looking for good help, Martha had said cautiously, after expressing surprise at hearing from Gina. But is Adam really interested in this kind of work? Shouldnt he be producing music or doing jingles for an advertising company?
He wants to do something physical, Gina lied. He wants to work with his hands.
Thats great, Martha said. Not enough men are willing to get dirty, to really work for their money.
Thats so true, Gina replied, hating herself.
Her own husband had spent his entire adult life hating work, saving money for retirement, dying almost immediately after he stopped working. Only fools work hard for their money, he would say, defeated. Rich people, the money just comes to them. Like Adam, she had thought at the time, cashing residual checks so large that it seemed obscene. But what happened when the money stopped coming to you? What then?
A few minutes later, a huge truck, pulling a trailer filled with all manner of lawn care equipment, a bit of overkill it seemed to Gina, parked in front of the house. Gina heard her son gulp, the action so loud it seemed comical. She knew not to touch him, to show affection. Martha Morgans son, Tyler, so confident that his chest seemed puffed up to a ridiculous level, strode toward Adam, who quickly picked up his cooler and ran over to the truck. Tyler waved to Gina, who waved back, and then he shook Adams hand. He pointed to Adams shirt, shaking his head, and then snapped his fingers. From the truck, which was filled with middle-aged Hispanic men, an orange T-shirt flew out the window and Tyler caught it without looking. He handed it to Adam, who looked back toward his mom and then, after a slight hesitation, took off his Jesse Jackson shirt, revealing his pale, concave chest, and pulled the orange T-shirt, which read MORGANS LANDSCAPING, over his head. It was a size or two larger than it should be, but Adam did not complain. One of the men in the truck got out and levered the seat so that Adam could climb into the back, which took some effort. As the truck drove off, Gina waved but could not see Adam clearly enough to know if he waved back.
She spent the rest of the day sitting at her dining room table, waiting for Adam to call, to tell her to come pick him up, that he had quit or been fired. When five oclock came and went, she worried that something had happened to him. At 6:30, she heard the rattling equipment in the trailer, and she ran to the porch to find the truck coming to a stop in front of her house. Adam crawled out of the truck, shook hands with one of the other men, and then stood on the sidewalk while Tyler strode with great purpose toward him. Tyler counted out a handful of money and gave it over to Adam, who immediately folded it and put it in the pocket of his shorts. Tyler clapped Adam on the back, which made Adam recoil from the impact, his shoulders rising up to his ears, and then he carried his cooler to the front porch, right past Gina. Tyler waved again to Gina, who only nodded, walking inside and closing the door behind her.
How was it? she asked, almost crying.
Fine, he said. Really hard work. Lots of carrying stuff from place to place. Im going to be sore tomorrow, Im sure. The other guys were nice, though. None of them really speak much English, so that might have been why I think theyre nice. One of them gave me a cigarette during a water break. Tyler told them that I was a rock star, which was humiliating, but they had no idea what he was talking about.
Do you want dinner? she asked.
Im just going to drink a beer and sit in the bathtub and take some Advil and go to bed. I gotta be ready to go again tomorrow. He fished a beer from the fridge and then slowly trudged upstairs. He stopped halfway up and then walked back down. He reached into his pocket and produced the money. He took one of the twenties and handed it to Gina. This is to pay back the money you loaned me for that beer, he said. Gina accepted it, though she didnt want the money. Then he hugged her; he smelled so musky, so earthy.
I love you, Mom, he said.
I love you, too, Peanut, she replied.
Thirty minutes later, after Adam had run a bath in which he was still soaking, Gina ate her dinner and watched a TV show; suddenly, she heard Adam upstairs, that loud, jagged crying, bouncing around the tile of the bathroom. He cried for nearly forty-five minutes, long enough that he turned the water back on to heat up the tub again, but Gina let it happen, knew not to disturb him. He was coming to terms with something, and it would not help to make herself known. When there was silence, she turned off the TV, slowly crept up the stairs, and slipped into her own bedroom, realizing that she had been holding her breath the whole time.
After a few days of stability, Adam finding landscaping to be a fairly straightforward job that suited his focus, he called Gina to say that he was going out for drinks with the other guys. But they dont speak English, right? What are you going to talk about? she asked, not wanting him to be drinking out in the larger world, preferring that he have a few beers in the bathtub and cry himself into exhaustion. That, she reasoned, was manageable. She could locate him, could understand him. The thought of him at some bar, holding on to the money he had just earned, made her nervous.
They know enough English. They know more English than I know Spanish, right? They asked me. Thats good. It means that they accept me. Im going to just have a few drinks.
Okay, Peanut. Ill leave the light on in the hallway. Dont stay out too long.
At eleven oclock, no shows left to watch, nothing left to clean, still no sign of Adam, she considered getting in her car and driving around until she found him. She had called his cell six times, always going straight to voice mail but she was hip enough to know not to leave a message; she imagined him rolling his eyes as he listened to the first few words of each message, her voice growing more and more quavery with each call.
Still, she was worried, paced the kitchen, snacked on some candied bacon that Adam had made on a lark the day before. She thought that the other men might have tricked him, taken him to some kind of underground fighting club and stolen his money. And then she realized that it was only eleven oclock, late for her but not for a man who mowed grass all day and drank beer all night. She would have to adjust her expectations to accommodate her sons new circumstances.
She went to her bedroom, and, as she prepared for sleep, she listened to the debut Dead Finches album, her sons voice reassuring her that he would return. By the time she had fallen asleep, she had forgotten that her son was anywhere other than inside her own head.
She awoke to the sound of conversation coming from downstairs, whispery voices that were much louder than whispers should be. Drunk whispering, she understood it to be. She recognized Adams voice and almost walked out to the hallway to check on him, but then she made out the other voice, a womans, and she pulled the covers up to her chin. The woman was laughing, and Gina heard the fridge open, beer bottles clinking, and then her drunk son and this drunk woman climbed the stairs, giggling the whole way up. Gina was frozen in place, knew she should go back to sleep, but instead she stared at the clock, counting the hours until Adam had to be back at work, finding the number so small that it seemed pointless to do anything. A few minutes later, Gina heard, to her own horror, the sound of the sofa bed creaking with effort, the woman moaning. It went on and on, grunting and creaking, for what felt like hours, and Gina turned on the TV in her bedroom, flipped to a cooking show featuring an impossibly attractive celebrity chef, and turned the volume as loud as necessary to drown out the sound coming from her office. But she could still hear them, impossible not to.
When it was over, some more laughing, whispers, Gina turned off the TV. She wondered if she could sleep but found that the stress of the situation had exhausted her. She needed to use the restroom, but she closed her eyes and waited for the morning. Just before she drifted off, she heard her sons voice and the strumming of that goddamned kid guitar.
Baby, youre gonna be mine, he sang, and Gina swore under her breath and placed a pillow over her head.
At 6:30 the next morning, nothing left but to grit her teeth and do this thing, Gina knocked on her sons door.
Yes, the unknown woman answered through the closed door.
Is Adam in there? Gina asked, as politely as she could.
Could you wake him? Gina asked.
Hes out cold, the woman said.
Are you dressed? Gina asked, waiting for the moment that she didnt have to ask another question.
Sort of, the woman replied.
Gina opened the door and found Adam lying on his back, his mouth open like a cat could crawl into it and live there. The woman was shockingly young, her face so plain and unlined that it momentarily stole Ginas breath.
How old are you? she asked, fearing the police, all kinds of unpleasant charges, but the woman replied, Twenty-one, as of last night.
Oh, thank God, Gina replied.
It was a big birthday party, the girl admitted, smiling, as if she and Gina would become good friends with enough time.
Do you know how old Adam is? Gina asked, feeling mean.
Thirty? the girl guessed.
Hes thirty-six, Gina replied, but the girl did not seem shocked.
I knew he was older, the stuff he talked about, she said. My mom has his album. Shes gonna freak.
He has to go to work, Gina said. Theyll be here any minute now.
She nudged Adam, who moaned and then flipped over and pulled the covers over his head. Not now, he groaned.
Adam, Gina said. You have to go to work, right now.
Im going to take a sick day, he said.
You cant take a sick day, Peanut, she said, instantly feeling embarrassed, remembering that this woman was right there. It doesnt work like that.
I quit, then, he said.
Adam, Gina said, wanting so badly to shake her son until his teeth fell out of his mouth, I begged Martha Morgan, a woman that I dont really like all that much, for her son to hire you. You cannot quit. You have to get up and go to work.
Im not going to work, Mom, he said, finally pulling down the sheets, sitting up and wincing at the light and the hour. Im not going.
You are, she said.
Im a fucking rock star, Mom. I am not going to push a wheelbarrow around in ninety-degree heat.
You are not a rock star, Peanut, Gina said, almost shouting. Youre not a rock star anymore. Not for a long time. You are someone who does manual labor and lives with his mother.
Mom, please, he said, holding his head.
The truck idled at the sidewalk; the horn honked twice.
Please, Adam. Im begging you. Go to work.
Adam finally sat up. He stared at his mother with genuine disgust, great fury. He took a deep breath. Okay, he said.
He stood, put on the clothes from the night before, that bright orange T-shirt, and walked out of the room. He turned to his mother and said, What you just said was very cruel. It hurt my feelings.
Gina felt her knees weaken. She felt the lifetime frustration of never giving her child what he wanted, of never giving anyone what they wanted. Im so sorry, she said, but Adam was already walking down the stairs. He slammed the door shut, and Gina was about to cry when she realized that the woman was still in the room. She looked over at the girl, wearing only a neon- green tank top and rainbow panties, who shrugged and said, Tough love, you know?
Do you want some breakfast? Gina asked suddenly, not wanting to be alone.
I would love breakfast, the girl said, raising her arms in the air like shed just won an election.
The woman, her name was Tina, strangely enough, made coffee, while Gina cooked some scrambled eggs, adding rosemary because she now added rosemary to everything in order to seem fancy, having learned from her son that things like rosemary and tarragon and sea salt and saffron made regular things special.
Tina was taking a break from college, had actually been made to take a semester off after a violation of the honor code. She tried to explain the particulars, involving copying notes for a test, but Gina could not keep up. Still, she was a sweet girl, had big plans for the future involving graphic design, and Gina felt that Tina might be good for her son while also realizing that her son would not be good for Tina.
How did Adam seem last night? Gina asked. When you met him?
At first he was really standoffish. He was drinking with these guys from the lawn care place, and I kept flirting with him, trying to get him to open up and have fun. All my friends are at school, and it was my birthday so I just got drunk and tried to make my own friends, but Adam wasnt having it. He said he was really tired, that he worked manual labor, had been doing it for years, and he just wanted to drink.
He said hed been doing manual labor for years? Gina asked.
Yeah, Tina said, suddenly realizing the lie. Thats right. And later, when he wouldnt stop talking about how he was a rock star and had just left the band to start a solo career, I didnt even call him on it. Shit. Anyways, I went to sing karaoke and I was really bad, and the crowd started booing me, and that seemed to make him take notice, take pity. He walked up to join me and he sang this Coldplay song perfectly, even better than the Coldplay guy.
Gina knew, from having heard it many times, that Adam hated Coldplay. He hated all British pop singers, for some arbitrary reason.
Thats when he started talking about how he was a rock star, and how hed hit a rough patch, that he wasnt inspired. He said he was living with his mother, which was kind of an honest thing to admit, kind of baller, actually. I respected that kind of honesty. Im living with my mom, too. He said you were trying your best, but he felt bad for being here, for disappointing you. Then we started making out and we came back here.
I am trying my best, Gina replied.
I can tell, Tina said. My mom always walks into the living room or kitchen and Im already there and I can just see it on her face that she cant believe this is happening, that Im not at school, that Im watching reality TV on her sofa. Its real quick, but I can see how sad she is about it. Thats why I like going out at night, to stay away until shes asleep and we dont have to be in the same place.
Gina knew she made this same face when she found Adam, his front half hidden by the open fridge door, digging around for food. She made this face when she walked into her office and found him looking at expensive sneakers on eBay. But she thought that maybe she was better than Tinas mother at hiding this expression of disappointment. She thought that Adam had not noticed because he was so intensely focused on his own unhappiness.
Tina took her plate to the sink and washed it, putting it in the dish rack. Thanks for breakfast, she said.
Thank you, Tina, Gina replied.
I probably wont see you again, Tina admitted. This was kind of a onetime birthday thing.
I understand, Gina said.
Tell Adam good-bye for me, Tina said, and then she walked to her car, parked in Ginas driveway, and drove off, leaving Gina alone, waiting for Adam to return.
That evening, Gina heard the truck rumble to a stop in front of the house, but she stayed at the kitchen counter, working on a crossword puzzle. After their fight, she knew enough to give Adam his space, the way his body expanded to take on so many edges that, if jostled, sent him into a rage. She heard the door open, and Adam walked into the kitchen. Gina looked up, but Adam walked past her, to the fridge for a beer. She noticed a cut on his leg, the skin around it angry and purple, and she stood up, alarmed.
Adam, she said, your leg.
Its nothing, he said, the words nearly vibrating with frustration. I cut it on a trimmer. I wasnt concentrating. Its fine.
Without saying another word, he went upstairs to his room. Gina took some comfort in the fact that he did not slam the door shut. A few minutes later, she heard him playing his guitar, lazy cowboy music, and she started gathering the ingredients for a simple dinner. The entire time that she cooked, Adam played guitar, singing in a deep, cartoonish voice. She made out the words lonesome and traveled this whole world and orphan.
Dinner? Gina called up to Adam, just loud enough to be heard, her voice bending it into a question, as if Gina wasnt sure what she was offering her son. There was no response.
Adam? she said. When there was still no reply, she said, Im so sorry about this morning. Im sorry that I hurt you. I never want to make you feel bad.
She carried the plate upstairs and set it in front of his door. I love you, Peanut, she said. She took a shower and then got into bed, when she heard Adams door open slowly, softly creaking, and then close just as quickly.
She and her husband had almost never fought, hardly an unkind word between them, though rarely was the absence of anger filled with anything resembling affection. When they did argue, it was always over Adam, what he was doing with his life, how responsible they were for the person he had become, what they should have done differently.
Her husband would always bring up a single event, when Adam was four. He had found a hammer in the toolbox in the hallway closet and then climbed onto the dresser in their bedroom to remove a small, oval mirror from the wall. He then tap-tap-tapped until the mirror was shattered. Gina had been making dinner and her husband was reading a magazine in the den, and Adam called out for them to come quickly. When they got to the bedroom, Adam was smiling. He placed the hammer on the dresser and then gestured to the broken shards of the mirror, which had belonged to her husbands mother. Before Gina could say anything, her husband ran over to Adam and yanked his arm, which made Adam howl. You son of a bitch, he shouted at Adam. Gina wedged herself between them and was about to comfort Adam, when the boy took one of the shards of the mirror and dragged it slowly across his cheek, the violence so calmly produced that both Gina and her husband were too stunned to prevent it. A thin line of blood formed on Adams cheek, and Gina finally picked him up, held him against her, the blood smearing her own face.
Behind her, her husband said angrily, He did that on purpose, to keep us from punishing him.
Well, Gina said, kissing Adam, who squirmed in her arms, it worked.
Early the next morning, Gina looked down the hall to find the plate, now empty of food, nothing but crumbs, sitting outside the door of Adams room. She smiled, then crept back into bed. Adam soon began his morning routine, getting ready for the day. When the truck pulled up, Gina stayed in her room. She heard the front door open and there was a moment of silence before Adam called up to her, Bye, Mom, and Gina shouted back, perhaps too loudly, Bye, Peanut.
After he left, Gina got dressed and went to the supermarket, buying all manner of spices and produce, even some fairly expensive ribeyes. Tomorrow was Sunday, Adams one day off for the week, so Gina imagined a quiet day at home. Perhaps, in the afternoon, they could visit her husbands grave. She imagined Adam driving the car, the windows down, a Dead Finches song playing on the stereo.
“She and her husband had almost never fought, hardly an unkind word between them, though rarely was the absence of anger filled with anything resembling affection.”
Back at home, she cleaned the bathroom and put fresh sheets on Adams pull-out bed. She took the pile of his dirty clothes and washed them. In a pocket of one of his pairs of shorts, she found an empty baggie that smelled of pot, but she simply threw it in the trash and did not think of it again. If she had asked him about it, he would say that he had been holding it for one of the other guys in the crew, or that he had found it on the ground while mowing and placed it in his pocket to throw away later. Or, the more she considered it, Adam would simply say that he was just so shocked that weed was this cheap in Tennessee compared with Portland and it had been crazy not to buy some while he was here. And with any of these scenarios, her response would be the same, silence and acceptance.
When Adam returned home from work, he pushed open the door, yelling for her to come quickly.
What is it? she said, immediately worried, all the anxiety rushing back to her.
Its good, he said, holding up his phone, the screen too small for Gina to see what he was talking about. Come upstairs and Ill show you.
They went to the office and Adam sat down and woke the computer from its sleep mode. Martys been e-mailing me ever since I got back here, but I stopped reading them. It was, like, the past, you know, so I didnt want to get caught up in it. But today he called and left a voice mail, and I was driving home with the guys and I checked it.
What did he say? she asked.
Something amazing, he said. He typed an address into the web browser and then turned the screen so she could see it. Look.
Save the Dead Finches, the website said. Beside it was a box that read $42,377.
What is this? she asked. What does that mean?
Marty set up this crowdfunding thing, like donations, I guess. He wrote about how we got all our stuff stolen and couldnt afford to keep the band together. He set up all these incentives for people to donate, like signed CDs and personalized thank-you cards or some such nonsense. Someone paid $5,000 alone for us to play a house show for them and ten of their friends. But its only been up for four days and already weve got more than $40,000. Its insane. And its still going. Hes been talking to venues and rebooking shows.
So youre not quitting the band? she asked.
Not if we can still make this kind of money. We can still do a tour. We can buy new instruments, better ones.
Thats amazing, Peanut, she said, amazed at how much people were willing to pay to keep her son happy, having thought she was the only one.
Look, he said, almost jumping out of his seat. He had reloaded the page. $43,101 now! It wont stop!
That night, Adam grilled the steaks and made an Argentinian chimichurri. They opened a bottle of merlot that had probably been in the house for more than a decade. Every few minutes, Adam reloaded the crowdfunding page on his cell phone and smiled.
I thought tomorrow we could go by your fathers grave, she said. Say a prayer. Take flowers.
Hmm? he said, staring at his screen, chewing loudly on a piece of steak. Oh, Mom, I gotta get back to Portland. Marty says that I can stay with him. We gotta practice and all that, get ready for a new tour. I dont think I can stay here.
Youre going to leave tomorrow? she asked.
Well, not immediately, but Ive got to get myself situated. Ill call Tyler tomorrow to let him know that I cant stay on. Thats the right thing to do. The other guys will be bummed, for sure. But theyll understand. Theyll be happy for me.
I hope this makes you see how you need to stay positive, how things work out sometimes, she reminded him.
He nodded, looking back at his phone. It does. Things do seem to work out for me. Its like, things get really bad, but somehow it always works out.
Just remember this the next time things get difficult, she said.
I will, he promised. Ill remember.
I liked having you home, she said.
It was nice, he said. Youve always taken care of me.
Youre my son, she said, as if each time that she asserted this, it became more and more true.
And youre my mom, he said, holding up his glass of wine.
Three days later, Adam was back in Portland, and Gina had the house all to herself again, almost no trace of Adam to remind her that he had even been there. He had even taken the guitar back home with him, saying that he really loved the tone of the instrument, thought it would make for some good songs. She still had his MORGANS LANDSCAPING T-shirt, kept it folded on the dresser in her room, but she regretted laundering it because now it smelled of detergent instead of him.
It was eleven oclock at night, but she couldnt sleep. She checked the crowdfunding page and saw that the number was even higher than it had been the day before. Several news websites had written about the stunt. One had interviewed Adam and he stated, Its nice, you know, to remember that you are loved.
Gina went to YouTube and typed in Dead Finches. All the same videos came up and she scrolled through them. Then she typed a new search phrase, Dead Finches Bitch, Your Dumb Ass Is Mine, and it brought her to a grainy video of concert footage. She clicked on it and watched the video slowly gain focus as her son stood onstage, tuning an acoustic guitar. The rest of the band had left the stage, only Adam remaining for the final song of the encore. This is a new song Ive been working on. Brand-new, actually, he said, never looking up from his guitar.
Slowly, in a voice so beautiful that it broke her heart every single time, Adam softly sang, Bitch, your dumb ass is mine. The crowd hooted and hollered but Adam remained intensely focused, gripping the guitar tightly as he strummed. Dont bother sending a Valentine. Bitch, your dumb ass is mine. Until the end. The end. The end of time.
This was what had become their hit song, only after Adam, with Martys help, sanded down the original until it was saccharine and hummable and impossible to forget. The faster it got, the happier it sounded, the more popular it became. But Gina had always preferred this version, could hear her son so clearly in the song. It was meant to be slow, rumbling, uncertain. She heard all the anger and frustration in his voice, and yet, underneath that, his singing was so beautiful, so hypnotic, that you believed it truly was a love song. You knew that he was only saying these things because he could not articulate what he truly meant, that kindness always mutated just slightly inside of him and came out wrong. But Gina knew what was in his heart. Her son.
She went back a few seconds in the song and listened to her son sing to a crowd of people, but really to her. The end, he sang. The end. The end of time, and Gina knew it was true.
From Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright 2018 by Kevin Wilson.