THE WEEKLY VISIT
by Emanuel Melo
Every week for the past five years, Jake has approached the front door after a slow walk from the bus stop. He gets off several stops away purposefully. The long walk to her house gives him time to decompress after a long day at work and ward off the resentment of duty that brings him here to her front door in the first place. The weekly visit, after his father died, to his aged and disabled mother, has begun to wear him down and now he shows up at her door as if in front of a trap he consciously, and dutifully steps into. He stays overnight, too, only to spare himself the exhaustion of a late night trip on the bus and then the subway and then another bus home.
Standing at the door, his eyes move to the green recycling bin and the blue garbage bin both placed directly in front of the driveway’s locked iron gate. The bins were left there by the next door neighbour, who out of kindness takes them to the curb every week and then leaves them by the gate for Jake to put them away. He rings the doorbell and while he waits for her to open the door, he peaks inside the black metal mail box and finds it empty. The door opens to reveal his mother: short and overweight from too many sweets and cakes, she is dressed in black from head to toe as she will always be dressed until the day she dies, a symbol of mourning for her dead husband. Her hair has grown too long below the shoulder, the curl from the last perm of eight months ago in need of the hairdresser’s touch. She looks haggard, worn out, and old as she gazes at her son. She saves her smile until she can figure out if he’s come in a good mood or a bad one.
As chaves! are the first words of greeting that come out of him, the keys! He waits outside the door until she turns around and gets the keys and brings them to him. He opens the locked gate and moves the bins to the inside part of the driveway and locks the gate again. Only then does he go inside the house. Before he even takes off his coat, he pours all his energy into doing any remaining chores, mumbling to himself when she hands him a dead pot of poinsettias, left over from Christmas. She lets out a small cry as he walks out to the back of the garden where he throws the old pot to decompose after the frozen winter months turn to spring. Back inside the house, he locks the screen door then locks the three locks on the inside door. He doesn’t understand why she needs to have so many locks on the doors; what if one day there’s an emergency and someone needs to break into the house to save her—if she’s fallen down and can’t get up again.
With the house locked up for the night, she sets the house alarm and he is her prisoner until she disarms it in the morning. He’s been there for a good ten minutes already and the visit hasn’t gone well. He knows this as he closes the door to the bedroom where he stays overnight.
He changes from his work clothes and puts on the pair of pants and shirt that is always there for him, along with the clean underwear for the next day. When he reappears in the corridor it’s only to see his mother waiting for him, still standing there and, as he walks close to her, she throws her arms around him, releases her pitiful cries and tears of complaint.
“What have I done,” she says, “You’ve changed, you don’t like me anymore. You don’t even greet me with a smile. All you give me now is desprezo, neglect.” She says it all in Portuguese and her son hates to have to defend himself in Portuguese. He doesn’t relate to the language of his childhood. It makes it more difficult to argue with her or to explain what he’s all about. The language stifles his ability to express himself to her. He hasn’t told her yet that he plans to stop the weekly visits. She won’t understand why he is no longer able to devote so much time to her—the shopping and the errands and the cleaning and the banking and the doctors’ appointments, all the things that his father would have done for her. But he is not his father nor does he want to be his father’s substitute.
And there she is, standing in her dark corridor, clinging to her son who doesn’t want to be
there anymore. She holds on to him, afraid of him slipping away from her. “I’ll leave right
now,” he warns her. “So, go!” she yells back but doesn’t really mean it nor does she expect him
to be good to his threat. He disentangles himself from her desperate embrace, feeling no softness or warmth toward the woman who is his mother. His heart is rigidly cold against her and he himself does not really understand how it got to be this way. He did love her before and maybe he still does but he’s so tired that he no longer feels it.
She moves into the living room where she spends all her days and evenings. The room feels like some old fashioned funeral parlor with heavy furniture where frames of photographs of his father are placed on top of every available surface. An array of santinhos has fallen out of her prayer book, fanned out on the floor in front of the sofa where she sits all day. Jake bends over to pick up the holy cards but she tells him to stop.
“You don’t know the order they’re supposed to be in. I was in such a rush to get to the door that I let them drop when I got up from the sofa. I never know if you are going to be in a good or bad mood. Eu não tenho sorte.” She says her favorite expression regarding everything that happens to her. I have no luck, is what she means. It’s a mantra that covers all the unhappiness and disappointments of her life. He ignores her command and takes his time picking up the holy cards, slow and deliberate, trying to re-establish some order out of the emotional chaos he has felt since his arrival.
She has spent the entire day cooking his meal. Lately, this has become hard for her. She can’t stand for very long and her legs are in constant discomfort and pain. But she has been doing this weekly ritual for five years now; he has been coming to see her every Tuesday night. The weekly visit has become a regular part of her routine and for him to get out of coming on any given Tuesday requires much explanation and a weighing of the validity for missing it.
She always makes elaborate home cooked meals for him: Portuguese recipes for soups like caldo verde and vegetable soups with feijão and repolho; codfish dishes like bacalhau à Gomes de Sá and galinha com arroz. She has a very sweet tooth and each meal must include a chocolate pudding or a crème caramel.
Tonight, he’s not in a hurry to eat; he’s lost his appetite. So they both sit on the sofa by the dim lamp light waiting for him to want his dinner. She’s still upset about how he neglected to greet her with a smile or a hug. “I don’t know how I can take so much desprezo,” she complains. Jake panics. No matter how much he does for her, she still feels neglected. “I don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve all this desprezo.” She doesn’t let it go. Jake sits at the other end of the sofa and with every word she utters he wishes that he could find the courage to get up and leave and go home. He can’t hear the same complaints over and over again. I live alone, nobody wants me, the least they can do is call; this has become her recent mantra.
It’s the end of January and the Presépio still needs to be put away. He goes down to the basement and retrieves the box for the crèche figurines. The nativity set was bought decades ago at Simpsons, the price tag of $29.99 still stuck to the bottom of the box. She takes each statue, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Three Kings of the Orient, the Shepherds and their little sheep, each figure returned to its individual bubble wrap container. Jake takes each statue from her withered thin hand and sorts them into place inside the protective box. They don’t say much while they put the statues away and the lack of words allows for a breathing space between them. Her face starts to look calm. He feels sorry for her just then and he wishes that he had been kind to her when he arrived.
Jake gives in to his hunger. At the kitchen table, she places the plate of chicken with rice in front of him and watches him eat. She never eats with him. Her dinner is always around three o’clock, without exception. He eats quietly while she tells him about who phoned during the day and which doctor’s appointment is coming up, especially the one to determine when she can have her knee replacement surgery. After dinner he gets up to wash the dishes. Normally, she doesn’t let him wash the dishes but tonight she is tired, and so lets him do it. She dries the plates and cutlery sitting down.
Once everything is put away, they move back into the living room and she turns the TV on to her Portuguese shows. He doesn’t mind watching the Brazilian soap operas and the news from Portugal with her. Jake, Joaquim, was nine when the family moved to Canada but he has always remained curious about the culture and the language they left behind, so listening to the anchorman speak the language he cannot speak fluently pleases him.
After a couple of hours of watching TV he gets up from the sofa. “This is it. My brain is closed for the night, boa noite.” He bends down to give her a kiss on the cheek and a hug that she expects from him but which he gives dutifully and not with a joyful heart. He doesn’t understand why he’s changed toward her. It saddens him to feel the way he does but he can’t help it. She pulls him toward her body with a smile and a reconciled heart. “Eu gosto tanto de ti,” she whispers into his ear but hearing her say that she loves him so much only makes him feel guilty and ashamed of his behaviour.
The next morning, he sits for a few minutes in the quiet dark kitchen, the only light coming from above the stove, and has an instant Sanka and toast, which his mother prepared while he showered and shaved. “You have changed,” she says sitting across from him at the small kitchen table. “You are so distant, you don’t like me anymore.” She is brave enough to say it head on. He sips his coffee slowly, not daring to answer her. He chews the dry toast to give him time to get out of answering it. Instead, he just makes up excuses of how busy he is at work, so overworked that he won’t be able to come back next week. He tells her this, anticipating a bad reaction. She looks at him with disappointment all over her face. But she says, “Well, if you can’t, you can’t. I can get used to anything. It’s just another desprezo.” There, she has said it again, another example of abandonment. And he puts the coffee cup down on the table with a bang, pretending afterwards that it slipped from his fingers, so that she doesn’t see his anger. It’s like this with everything. She can manipulate any statement he says, she can twist anything he says so that she comes out being right. If he says that he’s tired, well, she never gets tired and even now at her age. And all the years that she took care of her own bedridden mother without anyone’s help, who will do that for her now? She has no sorte. Her luck ran out when her husband died, leaving her to fend for herself alone in the world with a son who, frankly, is starting to be a disappointment. “Pensa bem no que fazes.” Think carefully about what you are doing, she warns him. “Not to take care of one’s parent is a sin against God.”
It’s only 7:15 am and he’s already exhausted. His ability to shrug off her words is gone and he can’t wait to leave. She hands him a plastic bag full of lunch. He has been telling her to cut down on how much she puts inside the bag but she dismisses his plea. “Nonsense, you need all of this. What you can’t eat today, save for tomorrow.” Realizing that there’s no point in arguing, he takes the bag but it feels like a heavy weight that wears him down.
It’s a dark morning and a snow storm is starting. He gives her a stiff hug goodbye so as not to feel her touch. She always stays by the window to watch him walk down to the bus stop. Normally, he looks back and once the bus arrives, he throws her a kiss or a wave before getting on the bus. But today, the snow is falling fast and by the time he gets to the bus stop visibility is none. Her house up the road is shrouded in clouds of twirling flurries and the window he knows she’s standing behind is nothing but a dark shadow. He doesn’t see her at the window but he knows that she’s there as he mechanically raises his arm to gesture a dutiful goodbye before entering the refuge of the bus that takes him back to his life.
Emanuel Melo was born on the island of São Miguel in the Azores and immigrated to Canada at the age of nine. He lives in Toronto. His articles have appeared in Toronto World Arts Scene, on the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies website, and in Mundo Açoriano. His story “Avó Lives Alone” was a finalist in the Writers Union of Canada 20th Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers in 2013 and was also published in Memória: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers in 2013. He is currently working on his first short story collection.
Image Credit: Leo Elroy on Flickr