Volume 18
An Online Literary Magazine
April 14, 2024


My Mother's Fears


Bill Oliver


The big boat bore down on us, neither altering its course nor bothering any longer to blow its horn.



he jerked the oar in an arc, back to front, missing the water entirely and landing the blade with a clatter in the stern. "Ye gods! I'm glad your father didn't see that!" She snatched a look over her shoulder to make sure she was right, though we both knew he'd left earlier to go fishing.


She swung the oar back over the side, dipping the blade in the water and giving it a wiggle. "C'mon. You try, too."


"I think we have to do it at the same time."


"Right. You ready?"


In my father's hands, the oars always seemed perfectly agreeable to his wishes. I was dismayed at how uncooperative and downright obstinate they proved to be in ours. The blisters didn't help. "My hands hurt."


"Mine, too. Let's rest a little while. My, look how far we've come!"


The trees along the shore had closed ranks, obscuring our cozy rental cabin. I too was surprised at the distance we'd covered, though our progress probably owed more to the wind and currents than our own flailing efforts.


"I wish we had something to bail with," she said.


Some water had sloshed into the boat.


"We should take our shoes off." She crossed one bare leg, then the other, bending over to remove her pointy-toed flats with a deftness at odds with her oarsmanship. She dabbed the patent leather with the hem of her skirt and laid the shoes side by side on the seat opposite us, where they gleamed in the sunlight like two fish out of water.


My canvas sneakers and crew socks were soaked. More distressing, though, were the leeches I discovered clinging to my ankles when I peeled off my socks. "Get them off!"


"They won't hurt you," she said, though the look on her face told a different story.


"Really, Frank, I read that once upon a time doctors used them to bleed their patients—as a cure for what ailed them."


The sheer improbability of such a thing only increased my alarm. "Please, Mom, get them off!"


After a good bit of prodding and pinching on her part and no little bleeding on mine, she succeeded in returning the bloodsuckers to the lake, one at a time, with a flick of her thumb and a shudder inconsistent with their supposed medicinal benefits.


"Dad's probably at the cabin by now," I said, brooding over my wounded ankles. "He probably wonders where we are."


"Mm." She was gazing back at the shoreline, maybe wondering the same thing.


"You think he caught any fish?" I asked.


"Oh, probably. He'll have to clean them if he expects fish for supper."


"I don't want fish."


"I know, Sweetie. I've got hamburger for us."


We shared a dislike of fish. Also calf's liver, another of my father's unaccountable tastes.


"Are leeches fish?"


"I don't know. I don't think so."


I doubted my father would eat leeches.


"Oh, look, Frank!" she said. "Over there! I'll bet that's The Commander."


"Really?" I peered at the dot on the horizon. "How can you tell?"


"I can't, but it has to be pretty big to spot at this distance, don't you think?"


The Commander was the biggest tour boat on the lake. I'd seen it up close, stood on the dock right next to it when we'd stopped at Bagnall. Not even the celebrated dam had impressed me more. Staring up at its steep, slate-gray hull, I felt my knees turn to water and grabbed instinctively for my father's hand. "Whoa, steady there, sailor," he laughed.



My mother liked to tell people how smart I was, citing my curiosity as evidence. "He asks such good questions. When he was barely out of diapers, I was reading to him about all the king's horses and men unable to put Humpty Dumpty together again, and he looked up at me, dead serious, and said, 'What was that egg doing up on the wall anyway?' Now isn't that smart?"


The question I was grappling with that day on the lake was "What are we doing out here?" I didn't ask it out loud, but like the question about Humpty Dumpty, I suspect it grew less out of curiosity than a premonition of danger.


No stranger to such premonitions herself, my mother was an unlikely instigator of what she chose to call this "little adventure." She possessed a radar sensitive to all kinds of hazards, near and far, natural as well as manmade. These included thunderstorms, floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, fallout, automobile accidents, plane crashes, kidnappings, burglaries, and more. But for some reason the risks associated with two neophytes setting out, on a whim, in a small rowboat on a big lake, failed to register with her. Did I mention that neither of us knew how to swim?


Normally, she believed in taking every precaution. In tornado season, when sable clouds draped the sky and the smell of sulfur hung in the air, the southwest corner of the basement became our frequent refuge. I grew so accustomed to it that I was more than once discovered curled up there next to the washing machine, having gravitated to the spot in my sleep, irrespective of the weather.


My father did not bother to hide from tornadoes. Twisters, he called them, as if they were a kind of practical joke nature liked to play on us but that he, for one, refused to be taken in by. Even when sirens roused us in the middle of the night, heralding mayhem in the lower stratosphere, his response was to turn over in bed and go back to sleep. "He's a Missouri mule," my mother would fume, as the two of us rushed to take cover.


His indifference to danger, which so exasperated her, filled me with awe. Not that I was inclined to follow his example. Should the bony finger of fate, in the form of a funnel cloud, touch down in my neighborhood, I wanted to make myself as scarce as possible. The weather, though, could not be blamed for the misgivings I felt on the lake. Not a single cloud blotted our horizon. As the last of the morning fog lifted, even distant objects appeared with absolute clarity.


"I believe that is The Commander" I announced. "Coming this way!"



It was possible that our journey that morning had to do with my father's mulishness. My mother's desire to go antiquing in nearby Sunrise Beach had clashed with his plan to try out a fishing site on the opposite end of the lake.


"You're driving all the way over there?" she said. "It'll take the entire morning!"


"We can visit the junk shops this afternoon, Angela. Or tomorrow on the way home."


"Tomorrow's Sunday. They won't be open. Besides, Frank and I need to be home in time for noon Mass."


He shrugged. Mass held even less weight with him than tornadoes.


"He needn't expect us to sit around here all morning cooling our heels," she said, when he was gone.


I wouldn't have minded staying in the cabin myself. It had a TV, and while the reception was spotty, I was pretty good at tweaking the rabbit ears. Saturday morning cartoons beckoned. My mother had a different idea. "C'mon, Frank," she said, with a conspiratorial wink, "you and I are going on a little adventure."


As her designated accomplice, I harbored reservations borne of previous occasions. Like the time she'd confided her plan to have the dining room windows replaced with French doors. She said it would let in more light while also providing ready access to the backyard for sunbathing. My father would have opposed the project as an extravagance, but to me, it sounded like a good enough idea, which was all the encouragement she needed. Unfortunately, the workmen appeared earlier than expected, and being unaware of the subterfuge, announced their presence by tapping on the about-to-be-demolished dining room windows, just as my father was tucking in to breakfast.


"I'll never forget the look on his face," she would say later, with what seemed to be a mixture of pride and compunction. She neglected to mention his slapping the tabletop so hard that the dishes and silverware jumped. Not a violent man, he was nevertheless subject to gusts of emotion that could cut a swath through our lives every bit as unnerving as a tornado.


The conviction that my father would frown upon our present undertaking added to my unease. He may not have believed in hiding from trouble, but neither did he believe in going out of his way to find it. I had a hunch that was exactly what my mother and I were doing. Not to say I was immune to the thrill of being out on the lake. Our chance encounter with The Commander-it was indeed headed in our direction-seemed of itself sufficient justification for the trip.


The sound of its horn reverberated across the water.


The big boat seemed to be acknowledging our presence, tooting its hello.


I started to stand up, but my mother grabbed my T-shirt and pulled me down.


"That's not safe."


Undeterred, I waved enthusiastically in The Commander's direction.


"All right, now," she said, still holding onto my T-shirt. "I sure hope they see us."



She believed in prayer as a hedge against fate. Huddled in the corner of the basement, we said the Rosary, enumerating the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries, as the storm threatened to snatch the house from its foundation and send it hurtling through the air, my father along with it, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. During one particularly long and harrowing night, I gave vent to my concern should such a calamity befall him.


"Serve him right!" she said. Then after a minute, "I'm sorry. I don't mean that. You know I love your dad."


She seemed to need him at her side. In his absence, her fears were magnified. When he had to go out of town on business, we'd pull the mattress from my room and position it on the floor next to her bed. She would put some of my Hot Wheels on the windowsills, so if an intruder tried to break in, they'd tumble to the floor and wake us.


She made such occasions seem like fun, even as I was convinced the danger was real.


"It's like we're camping out," she said. I got to stay up past my bedtime, drink soda with a straw, and eat Jiffy Pop. Eventually she'd lean over the side of her bed. "I'm going to leave the lamp on for a while longer, but you should go to sleep. Pull the covers over your head if the light is too much for you."


I didn't mind the light but ducked under the covers anyway. "It's like being in a tent," I said.


"That's right," she said. "I might try it myself."


"Then who'll keep watch?"


"Don't forget your prayers," she said.



"I wish we could go on The Commander." Besides the sheer beauty of the thing, the apparent ease with which it cleaved the murky waters, producing a frothy confection like whipped cream in its wake, spurred my longing.


The horn sounded again, and my mother clapped her hands over her ears.


I thought her reaction unjustified, and I repeated my desire to become a passenger on the ship.


"Your father says it's too expensive."


"You asked him?"


"I didn't have to."


"You don't want to go on it anyway," I sulked.


"I would. It's just that, right now, I want it to keep its distance, stay over there, on its own part of the lake."


What a silly idea, I thought, since it was clear The Commander ruled the whole lake. I gathered that the big tour boat had been added to her list of fears and that she was probably questioning the wisdom of ever venturing out here where such leviathans roamed.


"Scaredy cat," I said under my breath.


To my relief, she didn't hear me or simply chose to ignore my disrespect. In truth, I shared her concern over The Commander's increasing proximity, even as its size, beauty, and grace held me in thrall.


We were much alike, my mother and me, as she'd been known to remark. She, too, knew the allure of danger, despite her fears. Having once spotted the notorious Sharon Kinney in a well-known barbeque restaurant in downtown Kansas City, she became fixated on the middle-class housewife turned femme fatale. Kinney had been tried twice in the death of her husband, whom prosecutors claimed she'd killed for the life insurance. Having escaped conviction so far, she was about to go on trial yet again, this time on the charge of murdering her lover's wife.


My mother's brush with her in the barbeque restaurant made a deep impression on her. "It is hard to imagine," she would say, "how a woman could be so shameless."


"They couldn't prove she was guilty," my father pointed out.


"Oh, Fran, don't be so naïve! I hope they get her this time."


"I wouldn't count on it. She's an awfully good-looking woman."


"Oh, no, she's not! There's a hardness about her," my mother said. "You can see it in her eyes. And to go around in public with the very man whose wife she killed. How brazen is that?"


"You sort of look alike," he observed, not for the first time. "You could almost be sisters."


"Oh, stop it," she said, a blush suffusing her cheeks.



The big boat bore down on us, neither altering its course nor bothering any longer to blow its horn. Perhaps the horn had never been cautionary, let alone salutary, but rather meant to broadcast The Commander's dominion: "Out of my way! I'm coming through!"


"Dear God," my mother breathed.


I closed my eyes, bracing for the collision. When I opened them again, it was just in time to glimpse the steep, dark hull sweeping by as swiftly as a magician pulling back a curtain.


Then, it was morning again, with the sunlight on the water, a few plump, pink clouds on the horizon, and the green shoreline in the near distance. Passengers leaned over the rails as the big boat sped on. Their faces betrayed neither relief nor concern but only a middling curiosity. Apparently, we, in our floundering rowboat, qualified as one of the less noteworthy sights on the lake that morning. Confirming as much, The Commander gave a short, dismissive blast of its horn.


"Whew, that was a close one," my mother said.


We both dropped our oars, glad to forget the useless things for the moment. I remember dragging a hand across my brow in a pantomime of relief. My mother laughed.


We hadn't reckoned on the wake.


The surface of the water began to swell, as if the lake were taking a deep breath. Then we saw a wall of water begin rolling toward us.


"What now, Mom?"


She appeared riveted by the same advancing disaster as I.




She turned and looked at me. "We need to steer into it. Give me your oar. You sit there." She nodded toward the stern.


I scrambled into the rear of the boat and hunkered down, hugging myself with both arms.


"No, hold on to the sides," she said.


The boat plunged, spraying water over us. Just as suddenly, it reared up. I saw my mother, framed by the prow. She held the oars suspended, beating the air like wings.


Her lips were moving. I couldn't hear her over the rushing water but read her meaning. No prayer this time. It was me she implored. "Hold on tight. It'll be okay."


Bill Oliver teaches writing and American literature at Washington and Lee University, where he also directs the college writing center. His Women & Children First won Mid-List Press's First Series Award in Short Fiction, and he is also the author (with Bonnie Lyons) of Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers (University of Illinois Press). He has twice had stories nominated for a Pushcart Prize.







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