"Tommy!" Caroline called from the back porch.
"Want something to eat?"
Caroline held the screen door open for him, and smiled and tousled his hair as he entered. It was all right. She frequently coaxed him over to her house whenever she cooked up a huge pot of spaghetti or ravioli or veal or chicken cacciatore, with a subtle and delicate sauce made from the tomatos and basil she grew in her garden at the far end of the back yard.
He knew she didn't mind how much he ate because there always was plenty to go around. She always had a wood case of green-bottled Cokes in the pantry, so good on a hot summer day, and delicious deserts like chocolate-covered vanilla cream-filled donuts or white pan cake with butter and powdered sugar icing.
Tommy sat down at the table in her spotless kitchen.
"Like it spicy?"
Caroline slathered bright yellow on the ham and then pressed on a slice of rye bread. She cut the sandwich, and spread the halves apart to make room for a pile of potato chips and a dill pickle, sliced lengthwise in quarters. She put the plate in front of him, then went to the pantry and returned with two Cokes. She popped the corrugated metal caps, slid one bottle toward him, then sat down.
"Where's your father?" Caroline asked.
"I don't know." Tommy took a long swallow of his Coke, and burped quietly.
"He shouldn't leave you alone in that house."
"I don't mind."
"I know it's none of my business, but it just isn't right."
Tommy glanced at Caroline as he took another large bite from his ham on rye. She rubbed her eyes. She sighed.
He knew something was up. He could feel it.
Finally she said, "I shouldn't tell you this, but someone always calls and asks how you're doing."
"Somebody who really loves you."
Tommy grunted. "Yeah, right."
"So who, then?"
Caroline looked so serious. He hated it when adults got serious.
"Your mother," she said.
Tommy blinked. "Who?"
His face grew warm. "My mother is dead."
"Is that what your father told you?"
"Well, he lied. She isn't dead. She calls all the time and asks how you're doing."
Tommy put down what was left of his sandwich. He clasped his hands in his lap. He sat very still, staring down at his plate but seeing nothing.
"What's her name?"
"Elizabeth. We call her Betty."
* * *
Mike drove to a part of town Tommy hadn't ever seen before. Lots of traffic. Storefronts. Traffic lights at every corner. Start, stop. The silence.
A blur. Numbness.
Betty stood at the door. Her dress was pastel blue. She had long, brown hair. Her eyes glistened. A beautiful softness in her face.
Elizabeth. Betty. His mother. Mom.
The dining room table was covered with a thick white cloth. Two white candles burned in gleaming brass holders. Lots of polished silverware. A folded napkin beside each of the three plates. The green stuff she poured into his father's glass was creme de menthe, according to the bottle on the sideboard. Tommy's drink was ginger ale.
Soon Betty brought in food from the kitchen. A pot roast. Mashed potatos. Gravy in a silver boat. Green beans. A salad of lettuce, onion slivers, and crunchy croutons, topped with blue cheese or Italian, whichever you'd like.
"So how are you doing in school?" his mother asked.
"Fine," Tommy replied.
His father chewed slowly, eyes narrow in a squint.
"What's your favorite subject?"
His father pushed his plate forward two inches, dropped his napkin on top of the plate, which still had a substantial amount of pot roast and potatoes on it. He got up and refilled his glass with the green fluid. Which was precisely the color of the aftershave lotion he'd splash on his face in front of the kitchen mirror every Friday or Saturday night before going out to paint the town red. He raised his glass, drank deeply.
Desert was homemade chocolate cake. Tommy forked out chunks, careful to avoid the frosting, which he preferred to save until last. His father said he didn't care for any cake. He'd instead have another Creme de menthe, that is, if she didn't mind.
Mike got up without waiting to hear her reply. She gave him a sharp look, which he ignored.
Betty put on a record. "La Boheme."
"Do you like opera?" she asked Tommy, settling into the couch, extending her hand, inviting him to sit beside her. The carpet was thick, in an oriental pattern. White curtains covered the windows.
"I think so."
Mike sat in an armchair across the room, glass in hand, intently watching Tommy and Betty. Tommy tried to pretend that sullen, dangerous man was not there.
"I just love opera," she said, "I cry when I hear certain parts. There's such feeling in that music. Drama. And always an interesting story."
Tommy knew the discussion of opera was making his father mad. He knew what the man was thinking: "A crock of shit, that's what it is. All these people running around trying to be something they're not. Bunch of phoneys. Who the fuck do they think they are?"
After a while Betty drew Tommy closer. She gently coaxed him, gradually overcoming his fearful resistance, until his cheek rested on her bosom. He felt warmth through the fabric of her blue dress, the rising and falling of her breath. Heard her heart pounding. A scent of lilac. She caressed his cheek, ran her fingers through his hair.
Tommy closed his eyes. It was a duet. His mother told him this was Mimi and Rudolfo, proclaiming their love for each other. One of the most famous and poignant arias in all of opera.
"Listen," she whispered. "Isn't it beautiful?"
* * *
"It's time to go," his father said. The squint was still on his face, but now more pronounced. He swayed slightly.
"It's early," his mother said.
"I said it's time to go. Come on. NOW."
"When will I see my son again?" she asked.
"I'll let you know."
"How about next Saturday?"
"I said I'll let you know. Okay? What part of that don't you fucking understand?"
"I want to see him."
"Come on, let's go."
She stood at the door, and waved goodbye. The woman in the blue dress named Elizabeth. Betty. His mother.