James C. Clark


Hi, mom. Mom? Is that you?

Mom? No. No, I'm very sorry. I'm afraid you're mistaken. You must have a wrong number.

No, Mom, I don't. Mom, it's me. It's Jack.

Jack? Jack? Jack, is that you? Jack, my son? Hello! Oh, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello. Thank goodness. Is something wrong? Is that why you called. Are you in trouble? Why are you calling? Why are you calling me now?

Does that mean you want me to hang up?

No! No......No. Don't hang up. Please, please don't hang up. Don't ever hang up. It's just that, well, I haven't heard from, well, you recognize that, but I am just a little taken aback. I stopped expecting, you know, I spent a very long time hesitating every time the phone rang, thinking it might be the police or the FBI, or whoever calls when they have an unidentified body. I still hesitate a little when it rings. So you will excuse me if I'm a little surprised . . . if I don't know just what to say.

Well, I have wanted to call for a pretty long time, but I was afraid of how you'd react, and of course the longer I waited, the harder it became to pick up the phone. So, I wanted to talk with you a pretty long time ago, but I thought after a while it really didn't make any difference.

It certainly did! You could have called a long time ago. Saved me and your father a lot of pain and worry.

Please. Don't start this by telling me what I should do, or should have done. Let's just talk. Like two adults. Who don't own each other or owe each other. I can't handle it if you start instructing me. It never worked before. Recognize that. I can hang up. I won't feel guilty.

Don't threaten me! You can't tell me what to do.

That's right. I can't. And I don't want to. But I can ask you not to tell me what to do. And I can ask you what I would like you to do. How about we start this conversation over?

OK. I'm sorry. Sad how quickly we deteriorate into old habits.

That's not a "we," Mom, that's a "you."

Right. Let's establish blame, that's a great way to start. I am at fault. I always was at fault.

Come on. I didn't call to determine who's responsible for stuff that happened a long time ago. And I certainly didn't call to make you feel guilty tonight.

That's good. As long as you didn't call me to blame me for what you chose to do.

No Mom. I don't want to blame anyone. I wanted to call you and let you know that I was OK. I can hang up at anytime; I've already met my objective for this call. I am alive, and doing pretty well. So, everything else from here is gravy. Is there anything you want to know about these nine years? Do you want to ask me a question?

Do I only get one? I have a thousand. Ten thousand. I've missed you so much and worried about you so much. I think about you all the time. Not as much as I used to, but there's not a day goes by that I don't wonder where you are and what you're doing.

Well, wonder no more. I am here, I am alive, and I am calling you on my own dime, or quarter, or however much it costs now. All by myself. You didn't think I was very good at things. You thought I was a follower, afraid to tackle big problems. Well, I picked up the phone. I dialed. I broke the ice.

Only because I didn't know where the pond and the ax were!

So how are you? Feeling OK? I read in the paper about Dad dying.

I thought you might call or write when that happened, though I had no way of knowing if you saw or heard. But I prayed your father's death--at least--would get you to call me. I was alone. Your sister was in Europe and I didn't want her to have to give up school to fly back. At the funeral it was like I was burying all of my family, not just my husband. If you knew, why didn't you at least send a postcard?

And say what? "Having a great time. Sorry about Dad." Mom, I was in jail then. I was pretty ashamed. I didn't want you to have to deal with that too.

Jail! Oh, God! I was afraid of that, but I didn't want to think it. Why were you in jail? Or do I know?

No, you don't know. I was arrested for a traffic violation. Stopped because of a missing headlight. Down in Arkansas. The hair and the tattoo didn't impress them so they ran a check. They thought I was someone else. There's some other guy named Jack Painter, not a pleasant man, so I was in jail for over a week. While they cleared it up. Then they let me go. They were pretty nice to me, apologized and all. They just didn't want to have had me in custody and then have TV reporters nagging them that they hadn't done their job and why did they let a killer go. It was no big deal; I had a cell to myself and pretty good food. They even brought me the paper from home every day, and that's how I read about Dad. I was sorry, but I didn't know how long I was going to be in there, you know, maybe something else would turn up. You never know. Back before I quit high school, Steve -- remember him? -- told me the police had my picture in their files. Remember when he was robbed at the mall? Maybe I never told you about that, well, anyway, they had him looking at mug shots, and he saw one of me. He was tempted to point to it and saw "That's the one!"

You? How did they get a mug shot of you? You never told us you had been arrested! How is that possible? What else don't I know about.

I hadn't. They had a picture of me with some friends. They had cut off everyone else, so all you could see was that it was a candid shot of me and parts of other people. No other faces. That picture was one of the things that made me decide to split. It was pretty scary. The cops were after me, and I hadn't even done anything.

Yes you had, they just hadn't caught you.

Come on, Mom. I can hang up.

You're threatening me again. I still haven't asked my question. Where do you live?

I'm not ready to answer that yet. I'm not sure I want you to know. Try another.

So, there are questions you won't answer. This is a great start. Trust, huh? Do you want me to write them all down? I'm your mother, for God's sake. What are you afraid of? Well, do you have a family?

Yes. I'm married to a girl named Janie. We have a daughter named Stephanie who's almost one. She's one of the reasons I called. I want her to have a family, and that includes my side as well as hers.

So, did you tell her family that you're an orphan? You got married and had no one from your family there?

We got married by a judge. On a Monday morning. No big deal; she didn't have any family there either. We decided to do it simply. We had been living together, and when she found out she was pregnant, well, we decided to go ahead and make it formal. Just didn't want it to be a big event. Her parents didn't know about it before it happened, and they were pretty disgusted. We're trying to pull things back together. Create a family before it's too late.

It's never too late. Nine years is a long time. But there were four years before that when we saw you but didn't know where you were or what you were doing. It's not just contact. It's intimacy. Families talk to each other. They share. Words. Ideas. Emotions. Goals. Fears. They know each other. You spent all your time hiding from us.

We never talked. You never wanted to know me. You just wanted to tell me what I was doing wrong.

We were so worried. Those kids you ran around with; it was easy to see they were trouble. And the girls. We didn't want you to do things you would regret forever. Was that so bad?

No, Mom, it wasn't so bad. But I felt like you were hassling me all the time. Every mistake I made caused a nuclear explosion, every thing Jill did was covered up and excused. You think I don't know about all that she did--come on, she's only one year older than I am. She had quite a reputation in school.

Jill? For what? She never hung out with the kind of kids you did. She did well in school, was in the band, played volleyball.

So what? The kids she hung out with were much wilder than my crowd. They had money -- remember Annette? She had $100 a week spending money as well as daddy's credit card for clothes and gas and lunch. What do you think she spent that money on? And she wasn't the only one. Sorry, Mom, but Jill and her friends were pretty wild party girls They had lots of money and nothing to spend it on. I know--I was the one who sold them their dope. They thought it was cute buying from their friend's little brother.

Did you call me to attack your sister? That was noble of you. Ruin what's left of my family?

No, I just can't believe we have to start this with the same conversation we had last time we spoke. 'Your sister never does this. Your sister is involved in school. Your sister has nice friends.' It wasn't true. They just did a better job of hiding it.

Last time we spoke was when I came home and found the silver and china missing, Dad's books gone, and my jewelry box pried open and emptied. Remember? It wasn't about Jill. It was about you, and why you did that.

Yes, I remember. I wanted to save you the trouble of hassling with the police.

No, you wanted to save yourself. You didn't want us to call the police and have them know it was you who had done it. You wanted to get away without them on your tail.

I needed money. You wouldn't give it to me. I had to have some money to get away.

So you stole everything that was valuable to us and sold it. Years of our life. My grandmother's necklace.

Wasn't I at least as valuable to you?

More valuable than anything. I would have gladly given away all those things, if it would have helped you. But did it? You got a couple of hundred dollars. How long could that last? How long before that money was gone and we both had nothing to show for it?

I was going to go to Mexico and make a big strike. I bought a car and headed down there, but I chickened out. Man, it was scary -- those were some dangerous people.

How could you buy a car? You were only 16! That's not even old enough to drive!

I had $6000 cash. That buys a nice car and help to get it registered. I had gotten everything I had wanted. I thought I was pretty hard. I had a gun. I had pointed it at people, though I never shot anyone. Just a dog, once. Yeah, I was pretty scary. The girls wanted to be with the tough guy. And I gave them what they wanted. But I just wasn't tough enough to play that game on that scale. Pretty good thing, too. They scoured that car when I came across the border. I got a couple of tattoos down there, too. They're not so fussy about parental permission. The border guys didn't like them. Or me. They would have found a single marijuana leaf if I had one. I decided the life of big time drug dealer wasn't for me.

I don't know if I should be pleased or terrified. You decided not to be a major criminal. But . . . Shot a gun? I suppose that means you kept it in our house. Killed a dog. Jack, a dog? You liked dogs . . . I just don't understand. Drug kingpins? My son? Is this over?

It's over. It was over almost before it started. But it was fun while it lasted. I was popular. I had money in my pocket. I had everything a 16-year-old boy wants. And I mean everything. I thought I could have even more of it. That wasn't unreasonable. Those teachers were nagging me to turn in my work. What do they know about work? Sit down. Read their boring crap. Do their stupid tests. Follow their rules. They were jealous. I was making pretty good dough, more than they ever would! I wore nicer clothes than they did. I had more girls than they ever would. They should have been listening to me.

Is that what you thought about us too? A couple of old folks trying to impose irrational rules on you?

Sure. I knew how to get what I wanted. I was getting all I could handle. But I wanted to be a big-time player. And you were keeping me down. Until I went to Mexico.

So why didn't you come back then? Why wait all these years?

Because I could still be a small player. I would just have to do it somewhere else. I was willing to come back here, but that photo of me had me spooked. So I went to Chicago.

You don't know anyone in Chicago. Why there?

I ran out of funds in Illinois. That was as far as I got.

Why didn't you ask us for money? We would have helped.

Sure. As long as I returned to school, cut my hair, got a job. And apologized for taking your jewels and china. Probably paid you back for them. Sorry. No can do. Come on Mom, none of that stuff was worth very much. Do you really miss them? And those were my things. I would have inherited them when you died. I just took them a little early, when I needed them. So, I don't think you would have been too eager to send me a check.

Should we have continued to support you, no matter what you did?

Nope. That's why I didn't call. I didn't want your conditions, and I knew you wouldn't give it unconditionally. That's not how you are.

You keep implying that we should have continued to give to you regardless of how you treated us. Does giving only flow in one direction?

Mom, I was 17. What did I know about giving? Everything in my life had been a transaction. I wanted something, I bought it; someone wanted something, I sold it. I never stole. Not once. I paid my way. And it always worked. I never knew about anything other than wanting and getting or someone wanting and me providing. Sometimes the currency wasn't cash, but everything was in exchange for something. You had it that way too, when you were younger, you had all sorts of expectations. If you went out with a boy, he was allowed to do this, if you were steady, he was allowed to do that, if he gave you a ring, then you let him go all the way. I know how it was--just a purchase, you don't like to think of it that way, but you had an agreed-upon exchange rate. Boys did certain things, girls provided certain things in return. You kept that up for a long time; I don't think you ever stopped exchanging. You never gave anything. Even your donations to the Salvation Army were catalogued so you could take a tax deduction. You kept house, did your wifey things, and Dad brought home enough money to take care of you. Bought and sold.

What are you talking about? Being a parent is all about giving. I gave. Your father gave.

But you expected something in return. You always did. You never gave. You sold. And when you didn't get your price, you withdrew your side of the offer. You wanted me to leave.

That's not true! We wanted you to want to live with us in a way that we could tolerate. Did we have to accept whatever you did? That doesn't work in families, that only works with tyrants. We did our best to help you fit in. We went to the school and worked with your teachers, we hired the tutor, we drove you to baseball and soccer--Dad coached your team for two years!--we paid for trumpet lessons, and we never expected anything in return. Which is what we got, I might add.

I bet you might. You expected Jack to be a good little boy. You expected him to follow the rules, do his homework, and not embarrass you in front of the fat and boring neighbors, who you didn't even like!

Was that unreasonable? No wonder you ran away if you thought that was all we wanted.

I didn't run away. That's what children do. I moved out on my own.

We wanted you to have good things, things worth having, and have the skills necessary to get those things. We didn't want you to play the trumpet! That wasn't the end. We wanted you to learn about music, learn to persevere, learn to set a goal and accomplish it, learn to work with other people. We wanted . . .

No one ever thinks their demands are unreasonable. Otherwise, they wouldn't make them. But you should have consulted me. What did I think? That should have been obvious, but you should have tried asking your customer -- ME! I chose not to buy at your store any more. I wasn't willing to pay the price you were asking for the product you were selling. But I still learned all those things, and more from dope. I ran a successful business, satisfied my customers, and made money. Set goals, worked with other people. And listened to a lot of great music while I did. So you got what you wanted. Or isn't it quite how you wanted it?

Are you still selling those drugs?

No. I have a family now. It's a pretty hard business for someone with a family. I needed to move on from that. That doesn't mean I was wrong, because I wasn't. I did what I needed to do when I needed to do it. I never tell anyone that what they are doing is wrong. And no one tells me. It just doesn't fit any more into what I am. I need to provide for a family.

Won't you tell your daughter that some things are right and some are wrong? How will you make the decisions about right and wrong for that?

That's different. I'm not going to impose my morals on her. The problem with this country is that a group of grumpy, tight-assed, prudes run around telling everyone not to have fun, not to enjoy themselves, and to keep frowning because if they smile they might go to hell. Not for me. And not for Stephanie. I will tell her what will help and hurt her, and she will make decisions about what's best for her. I am not going to be a bully. I am going to tell her what will happen if she makes certain choices.

You think you can just sit back and watch her do the things you did without saying anything?

I think if I teach her what I know she will not want to do those things. I won't threaten or try to scare her with a god who isn't there or tell her I'll stop loving her if she doesn't do what I want her to do. But I know that she can recover should she make a bad decision.

Recover from AIDS? A baby? Self esteem that requires her to be with a man who beats her? You are kidding yourself if you think that you can turn her loose and she'll be fine.

Mom, I know what you did didn't work. You made the wrong decisions.

No, you made the wrong decisions. You can blame me, and your father, but we would not stand by and watch you destroy yourself with our blessing. We told you what was right and what was wrong. We told you you could not live with us and do what you were doing. We didn't threaten. We never stopped loving you. I still love you. But I don't think you know what love is if you think we would just sit back and permit you to . . .

You spent years telling me that god loves me, but he sits back and permits . . .

Don't! You made choices. We couldn't stop your choices. God couldn't stop your choices. Only you could stop you. And you didn't. At least when you were here you didn't. I think you didn't do what you wanted to do, you tried to figure out what we didn't want and did that. You know, I'm not sure why you called, but I think you want me to accept the blame for what your actions were. You must feel guilty for what you did or you wouldn't need me to be responsible. Now, I admit we had no idea what to do, and may have pushed too far and said things that didn't help. And I am sorry for those. I have been sorry for many years. You don't know how sorry I am. I have wanted reconciliation more than anything else. When your father died, I was almost grateful because I thought that his death may provide an opportunity for us to get back together. I don't know if he could have ever forgiven what you did. He loved you more than anyone, and he felt violated by the person he loved. I think if I had, you know, been unfaithful, he could have forgiven me more easily than he could have forgiven you. But I was not worried about things. I was worried about you. I loved you. I wanted you back. I still love you, and I am still willing to do whatever it takes to put this family together.

No, you're not. You're telling me what I am doing wrong. You want me to apologize and tell you it's all my fault. You want me to say I was wrong.

You were wrong. If you truly wanted to reconcile you would contemplate saying that. But all you want is for me to say yes to whatever you tell me. I am not here to make you feel good. I am here to help you heal yourself.

You need healing, not me. I have a life. I have a family. And I have what I want.

You don't, or you wouldn't have called. You can tell me you did this for me, for your family, but you did this for yourself. You know, I have a letter to you. In fact nine letters. I wrote one each year on your birthday. I wanted an address for those envelopes more than anything I've ever wanted. But I realize now that just as I was unwilling to permit your wrong behavior then, I am unwilling to permit you to neglect the healing. I'm willing to call it that. Wrong. I am not a wrinkly old prude trying to stop you from having fun. I am a mother who is trying to keep you from hurting yourself and those around you. You recognize that, though you won't admit it, because you stopped selling drugs. Go the rest of the way. Face evil as evil, not as just another option on the "Let's all love one another" menu. I have a scar. You put it there. You can heal that scar. By just telling it to go away. But you can't tell me I put it there, or blame me because I allowed you to put it there. You deliberately and persistently, callously and thoughtlessly, sliced at my life. You aren't ready to admit what you have to admit. When you are, call back. I am truly sorry. For me and for you. And for your family. Since my sister died, you are almost all the family I have left. I hardly see your sister. She is so busy with her life and career that she makes it clear she doesn't want me to visit. She bought me a computer so we can e-mail each other, but it is pretty impersonal to get this little notes every now and then, and I end up looking for mail that isn't there and experiencing a new disappointment that I didn't even know about just a little while ago. Family means more than a monthly "How are you? I'm fine." It means knowing. Not necessarily liking, but it does mean loving. And we have to be reconciled before we can truly love. I can't just say you're right and I am wrong. That's a lie we both recognize, and we can't have a relationship built on deceit. You didn't like to talk to me when you lived here, because you found yourself in the same corner you're in now. You didn't like the truth and you weren't willing to acknowledge a lie. So you avoided it all. I love you. I will always love you. But love means recognizing needs and acting on them. You need a real family, and a real family is not based on lies or hostility. A real family comes from sacrifice . . . Whew! You didn't call to listen to my speeches, either, I bet. Even after all this time I suppose you're still haven't exhausted your supply of my homilies. Let's be a little friendlier. Tell me about your wife. Where did you meet her? What kind of job do you have? Are you making good money?

Talk about lies! Mom, you're not very convincing as the doddering old lady talking over the back fence. I met Janie at a clinic. I maintain a computer network for a small company here. I like doing what I do. I am good at it. So I get paid pretty well. All those years with my head inside cars has made me pretty good at finding problems. But Mom, I didn't call to tell you about jobs. Or listen to reruns of ten-year-old orations. I called to tell you I love you. To attempt to reconnect to a part of my life that is missing. But you don't seem to want to hear that. I guess you're not ready to forgive.

I wish you wanted to tell me about love. I am ready to forgive. Love always is. But forgive means past. I can't forgive what you are doing and continue to do. I can only forgive what is done and acknowledged. You have spent most of this conversation wanting me to accept responsibility. As you did when you were 16. But you want to go on as you were. So, you're not still selling drugs. Great. But that's not the end of the process, it's only the beginning. Should you want to continue in that, great. That means change. And not of the superficial kind. It means a real alteration in who you are and what you want. I'm not satisfied with us pretending that all those things didn't happen. Like most of what you've told me since you were a teenager, that would be a lie. So we can be polite and talk about the weather once a year, or we can quit and try again when you're ready to be honest. I love you. I will never stop being your mother. I forgive and am willing to forget. I want a life with the man who is now, not the boy who was then. When you are ready to discard that person and become an adult, let me know. I'm not moving anywhere. Next time you dial the number will be the same. I hope you will be different. But I am here for you. Always have. Always will. And when a real son wants a real relationship, I'm ready. Are you?