Mark Rudman’s latest book is The Couple (Wesleyan, 2002). The recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Rider (Wesleyan, 1994), he teaches poetry at New York University. The following are sections from an in-progress book length poem, Sunday's on the Phone.
When my mother said that we should come to her apartment for lunch at noon I knew we’d never make it. I suggested a bit later. “I can’t wait that long,” she answered.
Now before I arrived at her apartment for a stately and elegant lunch I would have to stop off and get take out McDonalds for Sam who has never been known to eat supercivilized foods. He has just turned thirteen. Everything took a bit longer than we expected and we arrived, somewhat to my chagrin, at her apartment in the Methodist Manor, closer to 1 than 12. The door is open. I looked around: chaos. Utensils, dishes in the sink.
“Oh why don’t you just go fuck yourself.
Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here and go back to New York City you shit, you little shit.”
Oh my god.
“Just go, I don’t want to see you.”
I’m standing in her living room with my sweet son, a thousand miles from home.
“LEAVE OH PLEASE DO? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO COME?
Well you came, now you can go.”
“Well I’ve put everything away. Including the settings.”
“And you put the unused dishes in the sink?”
“Where else should I put them Mark?
“Back in the cupboard? (Pause.) They’re clean aren’t they? You couldn’t have waited a little longer and had something to eat yourself?”
“Oh I ate. I couldn’t wait.”
“That’s good.” (Working to extract any sarcasm of tone.)
“Is the kid hungry?”
(Sam nods yes.)
“I’m sorry we’re late mom, we had to stop at McDonalds.
“McDonalds! I make A GOURMET LUNCH and he stops at McDonalds.”
(Wearing scarcely buttoned housecoat she opens her arms and looks up to the ceiling.)
“Sam doesn’t like fancy food…”
“He doesn’t like the delicious salad I’ve made! You used to love my salad! You called them ‘Mommy salad’!”
“I told you.”
“YOU TOLD ME!”
“You won’t stop.”
“Why should I stop, you’re just a piece of a shit, that’s all. The whole life is shit so why should I give a goddam fuck.”
“Shall we leave?”
“No, no, the kid must eat. He must have his McNuggets, right Sam?”
(Sam nods yes.)
I place the McDonalds bag on the dining table.
Dizzy, reeling, swooning, vertiginous.
When will it stop? What does she want?
“Oh god. You don’t mind if I put down a placemat so he doesn’t stain the table, it’s very fine wood, I think we bought this in,” (rubs palms over wood, places forefinger to nose, pushes upward), “Salt Lake City…but I know you don’t care about fine things.
You don’t, but I do. So first we put down the placemat. And then we put a plate on the placemat, right Sam. And now you can have your McDonalds.”
(Draws lips around teeth in self-consciously fake smile.)
Sam sits down quietly. I am astonished that he doesn’t appear to register the thunderclap.
And grateful that he appears to not be taking her hostility in the solar plexis.
“Oh god, look how he splashes on the ketchup! and slurps the coke.”
I can feel the tension in him like a tuning fork, holding it in, maintaining control; after all this is his grandmother. But he knows intuitively that this quarrel isn’t about him.
“Just a moment, let me get a placemat. Here…here… here…”
I’m dizzy. I know I’m upset, angry, but am flooded with many other emotions; I feel rocked, like I was being hurled from wave to wave and coming up each time after having swallowed too much sea water, choking.
(A TIME OUT)
I can’t remember having been this livid.
I look to the ceiling as if God or Moses or Sidney will come to her rescue before I end her life—
I should down the bottle of Prozac she disdains to take—(on the off chance it might improve her outlook).
Sidney: “She has no control.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t talk to you. This is no fun, no fun. Ah, but we have each other, let’s be glad for that.”
Sidney holds out his shaking hand. I touch it. A look of indescribable understanding and love passes between stepfather and son.
Okay, there was my mother and father, couldn’t communicate with either, and Sidney, who provided an island.
“So, no Bar Mitzvah for you Sam, huh?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, it’s too bad that your parents didn’t (as if I’m not in the room) give you some religion.”
“Oh mom,” I long to say, “why are you such a sourpuss?”
I know people who say their mothers are wonderful and they allow them to manage their lives. Or people who idolize their mothers and flounder in emotional quandaries.
My mother didn’t manage my life, but she curtailed the satisfaction I took from my life.
Had all this not been so bitter, I could have grieved.
I could have written a lachrymose elegy.
More in sorrow than in anger.
I could have catechized, and then they could have set it to music, chamber music, and they could have exited feeling sorrowful but elevated—
all warm inside
instead of gnawed at from the inside out.
She has never asked him a question. Okay, maybe one. She refers to him in the third person when he’s in the room with her.
And after we’ve returned to Manhattan she calls and says in a confiding tone: “You know, you should send him down here for a week to be alone with me and I’ll straighten him out for you. By the time he leaves, he’ll be loving vegetables and salads with my delicious vinaigrette instead of McDonalds.”
(2nd TIME OUT)
“Mark, do not forget thy almost blunted purpose, amazement on thy mother sits.
You know she has no control.
She’s in a frenzied whirl.
Exert your will.”
“I’ve stood here for an hour hunched over the sink, cutting and slicing and washing and drying lettuce, opening cans, you see how hard that is to do with my hands.”
(She offers arthritic fingers with bandaged thumb—)
“I am still in the bathrobe—
(Runs to bathroom.)
I don’t think she has a moment when she isn’t thinking about herself. I’ve known thousands of people, never anyone like her.
I feel like I’m being eaten alive, from the inside out.
Once we’ve eaten she decides it’s too late to get a movie in before dinner. She suggests we all rest and meet for dinner at 5:30.
Once we’re alone Sam and I exchange glances and share shrugs. He reads my thoughts and says:
“I’ve never seen a person treat another person that way.”
We share shrugs.
I imagine what she’d do if I told her that Sam was looking forward to going to the Y to shoot some hoops while she took her afternoon nap.
If she had me to herself what would she do with me?