Every year, starting when I was nine, I went trick-or-treating at my mother’s house. Her name was Nancy. I looked up her address in Dad’s directory. He hid it in his file cabinet. I didn’t know why she’d left when I was six, why she didn’t write or call, only that she had “issues.” Issues, a word he pronounced with sorrow.
The first year, I dressed up as a king with a fake beard, Burger King crown. I wore my old blue sheets as a robe, the ones with stars and moons. I tried to frown. But I also laughed, hoping she’d recognize my goose-like laugh.
Nancy didn’t recognize me. She wore a purple polka-dot dress, like something in an old movie. She was so beautiful. Just the way she stood, she held what my father called “elegance.” Even the way she smelled, like Marlboros and sweat felt right. It was like everything could be good, because my mother was someone who had “really lived,” as Dad would put it. She seemed like someone who could keep you safe.
“Trick-or-treat,” I said, trying to keep my voice cheerful.
“Aren’t you cute?” she said.
I just waited, but she laughed when I didn’t speak. She whistled something mysterious. Later I’d realize it was Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake.
She dispensed some York peppermint patties and a thin little smile. But she didn’t ask where my father was. I kept waiting for it. Was this a game? Was it all fun?
“You’re a very noble king,” she said before she closed the door. “Always be proud.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“I love time machines,” she said. She leaned down and I smelled sweat. It was oddly soothing. “I wish you could buy me one. I could go back in time.”
“What would you do?”
“Never get married,” she said. She smiled. “I’m sorry. Just learn to be yourself.”
She shut the door softly.
I heard cracked laughter and the sound of bottles being popped through the window. Wine bottles. Dad told me how to recognize different bottles being opened. Beer, wine, champagne. He also told me what different footsteps meant. Coming, leaving, leaving for good. He’d later teach me how to recognize drug addiction and how to know when someone was lying. He was different, always reading and looking like the world was chasing him.
I stood out there waiting that night. Dad once said a mother recognized her child, even in disguise. But I just heard more bottles popping, more laughter, and then crying, blurring with the butter-colored streetlamps. It was so painful, like the way you cried after a bully stole your lunch, but a hundred times in a row.
I wanted to tell her I’d cried like that, to say everything would be all right. I wanted to dry her eyes the way Dad did with me, real awkwardly, tickling a little too much.
And I wanted to hate her. But if I hated her, she wouldn’t talk to me.
In the coming years, I’d dress up as many things, Darth Vader, vampires, figures who commanded respect. Sometimes I’d imagine her bowing, following me home. If Darth Vader ordered her to love me she would. Right?
But I could never demand that. I imagined her refusing, leaving again, even though she lived there. I had friends with runaway parents. So, I stole small images and hoarded them. I hoarded her hazel eyes, rings around them, her twitching thin fingers. And every year, I held onto her sad smile, which crumpled more and more. I imagined that smile full of sorrow. Love. I conjured her hugging me, feeling squeezed, the surest sign of motherly love. So my friend David Connors told me.
When I was sixteen, I dressed up as myself. I wore a maroon Big Lebowski T-shirt with YOU ARE ENTERING A WORLD OF PAIN emblazoned in white and baggy navy-blue sweats. It seemed like the right time to reveal the truth. Of course, I didn’t know to say. I’m your son? Why didn’t you write? Didn’t you know? Doesn’t a mother know? I was already telling Dad to kiss my ass daily because he said X girlfriend was too nervous and Y girlfriend was too opinionated.
I’d probably say something worse to her. Something I’d beat myself up over for years.
It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously. Rain whooshed from the sky, as she opened the door. The street was so still, it seemed to taunt.
She looked at me, long and hard, her eyes widening. Then she shook her head. She smiled her little smile and said, “I don’t have anything. I wish I did.”
“I don’t want candy.”
“What do you want?”
Half her teeth were missing. She looked like a depressed jack-o-lantern or someone from Breaking Bad. “Everyone wants something.”
“I just wanted to know you,” I said. But I wished I’d said something else. Nancy, Mom, even Mama. Mama, what a beautiful word.
Leaves swept onto the sidewalk with a soft crunch. Tree branches swayed, as if pointing at me.
“You’ve got the wrong house,” she said. “You’re not looking for me.”
“You’re Nancy Botkin,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow and looked at me again.
“Don’t you know me?”
She looked at me again and shook her head. A little too fast.
“You have the wrong person,” she said, her words a little softer. “Trust me, I’m the wrong person.”
“I’m Nick,” I said, my voice rising. “Nick. Nick. Nick.”
She looked again and swayed a little. She looked like she wanted to tell me something, her mouth flailing like a fish. A secret. A joke. Maybe she wanted to ask how I was. To call Dad a fascist douchewaffle and pity me. Maybe she even wanted to say she loved me. To wish me a good life.
Then she slammed the door. Thwack.
That was the last thing I took. That and the porch light flickering, leaving me in the dark.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program. His stories, “Soon,” “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” and “Tales From A Communion Line,” were nominated for Pushcarts. Yash’s work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.