BY M. S. COE
This is an excerpt from the author’s novel The Formation of Calcium. Copyright rests with the author.
SO THE strangest thing has happened to me: in the middle of the day, when I was dead asleep, this loud knocking wakes me. At times it is exhausting to impersonate your deceased best friend. I throw myself together and tiptoe to the peephole and there’s this lanky young man standing there glaring at the door as if he could see straight through it. I checked the dead bolt even though I knew for certain it was locked and then hightailed it back to bed.
Well, about three hours later, evening coming on, me with my first pitcher mixed, there he is at the door again, banging away! Says he can tell I’m in there and he’s not leaving until I let him in.
At first I ignored him, but he started up making the kind of racket that might incite the neighbours to call the cops, and since the last thing I needed in here were pigs wandering around, peeking in closets, I made the better of worse decisions and let him in.
He said hello and shut the door carefully behind him. He looked like maybe he wanted to kill me, his eyes narrowed and red-rimmed, his hands shoved into the pockets of his rayon jacket, even though the evening was warm. I had the wild thought that my ghosts had infected him, that they’d wormed into his brain and put there the idea to murder me before I could complete my exorcism.
“Can I help you?” I said, trying to make my voice big.
He fidgeted a little more, standing against the door so’s I couldn’t escape. Finally he said, “I’m Natalie’s son, Natalie Heap’s. Son.”
I swear to you it seemed as if the lights went out a little bit. It must’ve been my vision flickering. I’d fallen into some huge miscalculation, some trickster lie. For certain I’d been found out: here I was, monochrome matching with my makeup perfect, but no son would be able to see his mother in another woman. That was why he was looking at me so funny.
Only then he said, “You’re her, aren’t you? Natalie. My mother.”
“Well,” I said, my voice growing stronger, “I am Natalie Heap.”
“I’m certain it’s you. I’ve been looking for you for ages.” His narrowed eyes opened wide with hope. A twitch bothered his left cheek. “You gave up a baby boy 34 years ago, right?”
I let my mouth hang open. Catching flies, my mother would’ve said. She’d been obsessed with appearances, with slimness and beauty, with pinching fatty bits between tongs.
“This was back in California.” He seemed inclined to recite facts until I agreed with him. “You would’ve been 24. I had red hair at first.” He touched the top of his balding head, his fine and wispy hair. “I was born a little early.”
“Huh,” I said. Natalie had hated children, I mean, I had hated children, never had one, thanks be, but maybe that could have been a lie? Or maybe the birth had been blocked from memory, like a trauma? Or maybe having a baby and giving it up hadn’t really counted.
He goes, in a voice quite trembly for a man, just like this: “I mean, of course it’s you. I did my research. I did it thoroughly.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and I realized he wanted a hug.
And I was feeling relieved enough that I figured I ought to give it to him. He hadn’t found me out; I was safe. In fact, I was more than safe: “Yes,” I said, “of course it’s me.” I squeezed him and felt the air that had been in his lungs whoosh out into my ear.
“Mom,” he said, and I let go. “Or maybe I should call you Natalie?”
I told him yes, Natalie was better.
He stood there, kind of squinting, and it shocked me to notice the resemblance between us, the way our nose and mouth fit together the same. I squirmed, somehow feeling again that deep ache between my legs. I had a son; I’d always wondered about having a son, about how strange it would be to make a little man inside a woman’s body.
To rid us of the awkward silence, I said, “Would you care to join me for a drink? I just mixed some; there’s plenty.”
We sat in the living room and took sips of our martinis to make it look as if we had a purpose. I felt determined not to say the wrong thing, which meant I didn’t much open my mouth.
“I grew up in California,” he chattered. “In Oakland, back before people actually wanted to live there. I’m a Czakowitz, now. Marcus Czakowitz. When I found out your last name was Heap, well, I was so jealous. My last name has always been the bane of my existence. Heap seems so much easier.”
“Kids still find ways to make fun of it,” I said, remembering a story. “They would push you in the dirt and yell, ‘You’re a heap of dust!’ or ‘Your butt is a heap!’ or things like that.”
He laughed into his hand; I laugh this way, too. Any lingering doubts that he wasn’t who he said he was began to melt away. “Yeah,” he said, “kids.” Then he went all still and serious. “I don’t have any. I’ve always wanted them. I guess I haven’t . . . found the right girl. Or sometimes I worry that what happened to me — not that I’m blaming you at all, Mom, of course not — but that what happened to me has made me unfit. You know, as a parent. Like I couldn’t handle it, somehow.”
The way he spoke sent a chill up my arm, not unlike the feeling I got when the ghosts entered my dreams. Then I remembered something: “Didn’t I see you around near here before?” I asked.
After a bit more prodding, I got him to admit that yes, he had been trampling my perennials.
“Well, I’m glad that was you,” I said, and I truly was: the lanky creeper outside my window had meant me no harm, after all. “You gave me a start. I’d thought it might be . . . somebody else.”
With real concern in his voice, he asked me who, but I told him it was no one to worry about. “I wasn’t even sure myself,” I said, the truth. I wanted to ask what he’d been spying for — some proof that I was his mother? But it seemed like he might have already believed that. He must’ve been looking for signs of who I really was. Was it a regular sort of woman who had thrown him away, or was it a strange woman, a broken woman? Where had he come from, really? It was an understandable impulse.
Pretty soon after that, he left, asking if he could come back to visit, seeing as he’d moved to a town nearby a few months earlier. Right before he shut the door behind him, he said, “How come you never accepted my friend request on Facebook? I just wanted to see a few things about you. Never mind — I’m sorry. That was your prerogative.”
“Goodbye, now,” I told him.
He goes, “I don’t like goodbyes, I really don’t, so I won’t give you one. I’ll just see you again.” And then he fled with the giddiness of someone who’d finally gotten the thing they’d been desperately wanting. On the entryway table, I found a piece of paper scribbled with a phone number and a message: Yours faithfully,Marcus, (your son), call anytime. What a sad little penguin of a man.
M. S. Coe has published two novels, New Veronia (Clash Books 2019) and The
Formation of Calcium (Spurl Editions 2023). Stories are published in Antioch Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Electric Literature, Nashville Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Coe earned an MFA from Cornell University; co-edits the small press Eggtooth Editions; and has held residencies from Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, Petrified Forest National Park, and Ora Lerman Trust.