All William knew of his father was a leather box his mother kept hidden in her underwear drawer with a bunch of teeth inside. Although he never knew for certain, from its first discovery William believed this box had something to do with his father. When his mother was at work, William opened the box and lined the teeth up on her bed, sorting and counting them. Sometimes he’d arrange them largest to smallest, sometimes by depth of stain.
Whenever William asked his mother about his father he received a cold stare, sometimes tears.
“I told you never to ask about him,” she’d whimper into a tissue.
From a very young age, William learned to apologize to his mother, to say,
“I’m sorry, Mommy. Do you forgive me? Are you mad?”
Her open arms triggered a tidal wave of relief inside her son.
She held him, kissing his thin hair and saying, “Of course, my darling, I always forgive you.”
William’s mother worked the night shift as a waitress at the 24-hour pancake house. “It’s all for you, my love,” she’d tell him, soaking her feet in the bath of soapy water she taught him to fix her upon her return. During the day, she wanted William to be self-sufficient. She showed him how to clean, shop for food, cook. Over their shared evening meals, which were never quite the way she wanted -too salty or too cold or too much or too little-she regaled him with stories of her customers. The skinny family who ate hundreds of pancakes. The drunk college kids who stiffed her on the tip. The old men who reached up under her skirt. “You’re going to college, my boy. You’ll have a better job than mine,” she said, dragging on a cigarette while Williamwashed the dishes.
Over the years, his mother dropped not-so-subtle hints of future expectations. She told him about the old lady at work, Marie, who had hairs growing from her chin. “Only bad sons leave their old mothers with chin hairs,” she said. Indeed, throughout her entire infirmity and aging process, up until her death, William dutifully plucked his mother’s chin hairs. And, since he finished medical school and received his podiatry license, he tended to all her other needs like a true professional- massaging her boney feet and spotted hands, painting her nails. It was at Sunnydale, the only affordable old age home, that William attracted the attention of other lonely old people. Sometimes, when his mother slept, and especially when she no longer recognized him, he snuck off to care for the other old ladies.
After his mother died, William ran a private, house-call-only podiatry business, primarily at an assisted living called the Mansions at Elderhaven. Each day his schedule was full of lovely old ladies who counted the minutes until his arrival. The ladies had money but no husbands and no children nearby to visit them. The aids and physician assistants at the place pretended to care at first, while the papers were signed and the money transferred, but after a short while their focus waned, and often the ladies found themselves sitting in their own waste, or staring for hours at the depressing news blaring on the television all day. They told Dr. William all of this and more. Mrs. Gainings confessed the joy she felt when her husband finally died. Mrs. Roberts revealed she still had feelings “down there.” William knew his role, to keep their extremities soft and flush with the last dregs of life. His hands ran down their mottled skin to feel the little pulses hammering away in their ankles and wrists. He cut off horny nails, filed them down, rubbed creaminto dry, cracked heals, prescribed ointment to stop the dreaded fungus that plagued them all. He preferred to visit in late afternoon, when the warm light of the setting sun created a soothing effect and the ladies were (usually) freshly washed and fed, and after waiting all day for his arrival, could hardly bear the expectation one more second.
Occasionally, there were visitors. A daughter (Rachel) from California was coming to visit Mrs. Smith. Originally, Mrs. Smith only criticized her absent daughter, but as the days marched on, Rachel’s stock went up, and her mother bragged about her home, education, and children. William listened, as always, as was his duty. The day Rachel was expected to show up, William entered Mrs. Smith’s room to find her alone in bed, crying. He gently rubbed her hands, using a favorite rose-scented cream.
“Shall we do a removal?” he asked. Mrs. Smith nodded, tipped her head back on the pillow, her eyes closed above her set jaw. He took out his case and went to work.
“What are you doing?” A sharp voice interrupted the calm aura of trust in the room.
William turned to face a petite woman with a pixie cut and lines around her eyes.
“I’m Dr. William,” he said, extending the hand, the smile, the eyes.
She kept her hand to herself, peered around his body.
“He does house calls! Can you imagine? In this day and age? Now come give your mother a hug!” Mrs. Smith said.
Rachel-color drained, eyes wide, arms limp – shuffled forward, allowed the embrace.
“I’ll give you two some mother-daughter time,” William said, quietly gathering his instruments and leaving the room.
William loved his perfectly sized ranch house on the cul-de-sac, not far from the Mansions at Eldercare. He loved his mushroom risotto with a cold glass of white wine. He loved the yellow pansies he planted around his mailbox. But most of all, he cherished the leather boxes stored in the trunk at the end of his bed. He treasured their contents, so delicate, perfectly preserved. He counted, sorted, and arranged them, feeling great satisfaction in his calling, knowing his mother would be proud.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.