Around one, I heard the car pull in the driveway, the front door open, uneven footsteps across the floor. The radio came on, blasting out the Top 40 station.
I pulled the covers up to my ears. I could tell she was really drunk by how many times she stumbled into furniture and cursed. I curled into a ball. She ran into every object in the house on her way to the bedroom. Maybe she would just pass out. . . . No. She thumped around the bedroom, still talking to herself. She made her way into the kitchen. The refrigerator opened, closed, and then she opened and closed it again. Just steer yourself to bed, I said to myself.
The basement door opened and from where I lay in bed I saw her bare feet and legs begin their descent.
“I want a hotdog,” she said in a sing-songy voice, like she was cheering for the home team at a football game. I played possum, eyes half-closed.
“I wanna hotdog, Hidey-Ho!” She said it louder this time. When I didn’t respond she kept saying it, stumbling down a step or two each time. At first, I saw her bare legs and thought she was in the baggy old T-shirt she wore as a nightie. But as she chanted her mantra, first her calves, then thighs, bare hips, waist, and finally breasts, pendulous and dangling, descended into the basement.
At the bottom she said, “I want a hotdog, Hi-dee-Ho!”
I didn’t respond.
“You fucker, I want a hotdog.”
“Go to bed, Mom.”
“Don’t tell me what the hell to do. I want a hotdog.”
I couldn’t look at her.
“We don’t have any hotdogs,” I said.
“Don’t tell me that.” She was breathing hard, and her speech was thick, like she was talking through two fat lips.
“Where’s Stan?” I asked.
“I need a hotdog,” she said quietly. She had started to cry.
She sat down hard on the steps, put her head between her knees, and threw up. Spit trailed from her lips.
“Why doesn’t anyone want to love me?” she said.
She lifted her hair above her head with one hand and wiped her mouth with the other. She had vomit running down the inside of her shins. It was all I could do to keep from puking myself.
When I was little, maybe five or six, she had a hysterectomy. I didn’t know what that was, but knew it wasn’t good. She came home from the hospital on a Friday afternoon. The next Monday she still couldn’t get out of bed. I was late for school, Dad was already gone to work. I was standing by her bed, wondering what I should do, when she said, “Go into the living room and bring back your shoes.” Her voice was weak, as it had been when she told me I would never have a brother or a sister, and I was too scared to ask why. I sat on the floor beside the bed, and she talked me through tying my shoes–bow, loop, pull through; over and over she said it. I forgot about school. It took me a long time to get it, but finally I did. She smiled at me when I was finished.
“You’re such a big boy,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to learn to do it this way. I am sorry. But I’m so proud of you.”
It was the tenderest moment I can remember between us.
“I love you, Mom,” I said, getting out of bed. I said it again as I made my way around the vomit at the bottom of the stairs. I lifted her by her armpits and guided her up the stairs to the bathtub where I rinsed her and pressed chunks down the drain with my fingertips. The smell of vomit mixed badly with the honeysuckle bath wash: more than once, I bent over the toilet, thinking I was going to be sick, but nothing came up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Her body was still damp when I tucked her into bed. Beneath her grogginess, she looked miserable and scared, but I forced myself to remember the way her face looked that day she taught me to tie my shoes.
She said, “I want a hotdog,” one more time before she drifted off to sleep. I watched her face go slack, all the tension released.