Robert Heaton


She wanted to do something better

28 Jul 2018
(Fiction)

Hi Prithi,

My mom has died, I won’t be coming to the lab today.

——

Sent from my iPhone

Mommy was a battery farmer; daddy was a chef. What chance did I have? I thought about who to call and settled on no one.

Mom hadn’t wanted to die before she’d had a chance to do something better. For as long as I can remember she had wanted to make it to retirement and mow the lawns at Disney World. She said that if they wouldn’t give her a job then she’d do it for free, and if they wouldn’t let her do that then she’d sneak in at night and do it whilst no one was looking. I told her the same thing that she always told me when I was growing up - I just want you to do whatever makes you happy and keeps you away from the hard drugs. This didn’t make her laugh anymore.

Recently she had forgotten about Disney and battery farming and had started getting ideas in her head. She started calling me more frequently than our tacitly negotiated once a week. Did I know that sea levels are projected to rise by more than half a meter in the next 100 years? she asked. And that the only way to prevent it is by the widespread adoption of electric cars, solar power and smog vacuum cleaners? I told her to stop watching TED talks and getting herself so worked up. She told me to go to hell and to start taking her seriously for once. I started listening more dutifully.

She began calling me at strange hours to ask how my work was going and exactly how much environmental damage I was preventing and whether she had been a good mother. We stayed up half the night talking as I described what my group was learning about polar ice caps. I told her again the story of how I first became interested in oceanography when she took me to Lake Eerie when I was thirteen. She seemed calmed by this and I hung up when I realized she’d fallen back to sleep.

I suggested a few times that she start going to therapy. I quietened down after she made it clear that she would kill herself before seeing a shrink and I became scared that she was telling the truth. I wish we’d had a bigger family that lived nearby and could have visited her more often.

Dear Aaron,

I know you and my mom haven’t spoken for a while… I don’t know how to tell you this but…

Hope you are well. I am fine…

How are you? What’s new in…

Your sister is dead.

——

Sent from my iPhone

Mom had come to see her family as loving enough, in a straight-cut, post-World War Two, nuclear family kind of way. Her dad served in the Pacific Fleet. When he came back everyone seemed faintly amazed that he was still alive, that any of them were, that refrigerators and washing machines were suddenly so affordable. The bulk of her parents’ postwar time and energy went into keeping up appearances, with very little left over for crafting anything resembling a legacy. All her father left anyone was the 3-bedroom house in Youngstown, Ohio that she is leaving me and that I’m going to sell. And that makes me realize that I’ve probably got to take care of grandma now.

Mom was good at what she did, even if what she did wasn’t very good. Battery chicken farms get sued a lot and need good lawyers to protect them. They get asked for a lot of comments and don’t want to give any. Battery farming is a man’s world and mom broke down some of those barriers, which might have been a good thing. Growing up she told me that she was a gardener. When stories started appearing in the local paper I started asking questions, and when the pictures came she sat me down for a talk.

She explained that she didn’t like what she did for a living, but since it was just her and me and her mother’s care home bills she didn’t have a choice anymore. Maybe she could have chosen a different path when she was younger, but the nineteen-seventies were a punishing time for the economy and she felt lucky to get any kind of legal job anywhere East of the Ohio River. She actually started working at Boiler & Sons in 1967, but I knew what she was trying to say.

She asked me to support her so that she could support me. And so I did. I bought my first car with the blood of hundreds of thousands of malformed chickens, and paid for college with millions of their low-calcium eggs. Perhaps I should be less hard on us both. If money has memory then ultimately everyone is paying for everything using cotton picked by slaves. The whole point of money is that it’s fungible and doesn’t remember what it took to make it, but maybe the world would be better if we pretended that it did. Hopefully our children will be paying for their college using something better than us.

Dear ,

I regret that I must inform you with a heavy heart that Ms. Copeland, the potentate chief executive of the impending Stroll to School Foundation, has passed away to become no longer with us.

——

Sent from my iPhone

Can you wash bad money with good deeds? I suspect that the answer is yes, but shell companies and London real estate will get those really tough stains out faster. Mom once said that the rich and the poor both knew that you do what you have to do to make your money, and that’s it’s only the middle class who looked down their noses at income they deem improper.

Mom read a lot, and sent me emails with links to articles about disasters and solutions. A few months ago she sent me a solution of sorts of her own. She had put together a blueprint for a foundation that would encourage kids to walk to school. She had produced a thorough business plan detailing the social, health, and particularly the environmental benefits of getting adolescent sneakers pounding sidewalks. She was looking for funding from a few of the big Pittsburgh firms that her old law school friends worked at. I think she was preparing to remortgage part of the house. She was about to hand in her notice at Boiler & Sons and make them defend their own damn business practices for once.

She asked a few of her friends to be on the board. She also asked me, which I found surprisingly touching. When she made the request I stopped cooking so that I could hold the phone with both hands and gave an oddly formal and garbled acceptance of this great honor.

Despite this, I didn’t actually think that the foundation was a particularly effective way to spend time and money. When you spend your days starting at graphs of the change in sea levels over time, everything that’s not the wholesale extraction and capture of millions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon tends to feel absurd. The Stroll to School Foundation would have salved mom’s conscience, but it wouldn’t have saved the world.

For my part, if you told me that I could choose between personal glory and planetary salvation and that no one would ever know which one I chose, then I really do believe that I would choose the salvation. But I’d have to think about it, and my decision would fundamentally turn on the fact that I wouldn’t quite trust you to keep our little deal a secret. It would be nice to know that I had safeguarded the future for my children, or at least for someone’s children. I don’t have any kids and neither do any of my friends. The birth rate in the United States has declined by thirteen percent in the last ten years. No one’s getting any younger, kids’ access to cigarettes and guns keeps getting easier, and someone’s going to have to figure something out before we just fade to black.

At first I was touched that Aaron, mom’s estranged brother, came to the funeral. They fell out twenty years ago, after their father died. I hadn’t seen Aaron since the blow-up. He was wearing the exact same sports jacket and grin as he was two decades ago, only both were much more wrinkled. He seemed oddly pleased that I remembered him.

“I guess you don’t forget someone like me!”

He did not trouble to hide his glee at having beaten my mom.

“I guess Barb just ran out of strength.”

He gave me ostensibly inspiring but mostly intimidating advice about my life.

“You’re part of the blob of society now, kid. You can’t just ask the rest of us to make your future, you’re at an age where you’re either making or wrecking that future with your own two hands.”

He told me what he’d been up to.

“Last year we sold the most thingies in the tri-state area.”

He gave me his best wishes and his card.

“Good talking to you kid - let me know if you never need anything.”

I felt flat and glad that I would never speak to him again. I wished that mom was there.

For the first time I contemplated a future without her. I have no flair for narrative or romance in my soul, and I’m not going to move back to my hometown to continue my dead mother’s legacy. I have a tastefully decorated studio apartment in central San Diego, and I don’t think my mom is watching me anymore. If you somehow are mom then I’m sorry. I hope that whatever I do instead can make it up to you.

The Stroll to School Foundation was a legally registered entity. The board and I had to officially agree before it could be shut down. One of the board members asked if she could take it over and turn it into a non-profit that had something to do with recycling. This felt more fitting than the annihilation that the rest of us were planning. We all assented and resigned.

I drove out to visit grandma before I flew back to San Diego.


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