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From the Night Factory

41. Black Friday

I begin writing this essay in the early morning hours of Black Friday, but the story begins yesterday, which was Thanksgiving. We used to have our Thanksgiving meal at the Waldorf Café in Philadelphia. When they closed, we moved the celebration to The Ferry House in Princeton, New Jersey. When they closed, we moved on to the Yardley Inn in Yardley, Pennsylvania. It was just the three of us; Ms Keogh my more significant other, Mrs Bentzman my mother, and me.

The food is very good at the Yardley Inn. It is a comfortable ambiance of dark woods and lights kept low, but I would have preferred the absence of Christmas music. The inn was crowded. We were pleasingly squeezed into a far corner from which I could observe the entire room. There were men in suits with women in jewelry. There was a small family with two teenage daughters. A long table had been arranged next to us with a large family, from grandparents to a newborn. The children were well-behaved, even the sixteen-month-old baby who never once cried with complaint. All would have been a joy had it not been for my mother’s misery.

Mrs Bentzman is ninety-three, soon to be ninety-four. She began the year still driving, still dancing. Three major surgeries later, nearly two months immobile in bed, the sad woman has lost her famous vitality, her enthusiasm for activity. On the verge of a hip replacement earlier this year, she fell and broke her arm. The hip surgery was postponed. So commenced long months of pain that continues to this day.

Her arm repaired, her hip replaced, the new hip broke through her pelvis during rehabilitation. Her pelvis repaired, when it was at last safe for her to again put weight on her leg, to stand, to walk using a walker, she was sent home. She did not bounce back as we had expected from past experience. She has preferred bed and chair to the exercises she was assigned, so her leg grows stiffer and bending more difficult. Then she fell in the kitchen. Her parchment-like skin split and bled profusely on her arm and leg. She cracked her brow and developed a welt the size of a golf ball. She also broke a rib. Her doctor says it is no longer safe for her to live alone.

My mother shuffled into the restaurant with her walker. Half steps. Left foot slightly forward, right foot brought alongside, then left foot again. She sat opposite me at the table, never smiling, constantly adjusting herself, yet unable to make herself comfortable. She avoided conversing with me, directing all her words to her daughter-in-law, giving Ms Keogh an account of the minutia of her day, her climbing out of bed, her dressing, her inserting earrings. She would not make eye contact with me because she is angry with me. This is a subject for another essay and another day.

It was for me the saddest Thanksgiving in memory. If my mother knew that, I think she would be happy. In all likelihood, this will possibly be my last Thanksgiving. Next year at this time, I will be living in Wales, where they do not celebrate this American holiday. And that brings me to Black Friday.

It is three o’clock in the morning and I am writing from the Starbucks at the Oxford Valley Mall. The mall is open all night. The stores were open yesterday, Thanksgiving, too. Many people in the service industry had to forego the family affair of Thanksgiving in order to keep their low-wage jobs. But then it happens because so many people wish to forego their family affair in order to shop.

I came in through the Macy’s entrance and made my way immediately to the food court at the center of the mall. I went to the McDonalds and ordered French fries from my grandson, Mr Beckles. He was on duty at the counter.

Mr Beckles is eighteen years old. He is working from eleven o’clock last night to eleven o’clock this morning. He earns $7.25 an hour, the current minimum wage in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There will be no overtime, no differential or bonus, for working twelve hours and all night. He will be allowed only one break of thirty-five minutes for which he doesn’t get paid. In Pennsylvania, “Employers are not required to give breaks for employees 18 and over.” The job doesn’t give him healthcare, but Obamacare has taken care of that.

Mr Beckles gives his entire paycheck to his mother. He had enlisted in the Marines and was expecting to go off to boot camp in January, but now he is thinking of staying home and helping to support the family. (He also now has a girlfriend.) He lives at home, a house that I own and rent to his mother at no profit. Rent only covers the taxes and insurance, and still as hard as my daughter and her boyfriend work, they can’t afford it. I ate my French fries at the counter. Mr Beckles stole a few back. There was no line behind me so I could linger and talk.

First coffee and now an Americano. I came to Starbucks to write this essay. The shoppers are mostly young adults. I think they are enjoying themselves, coming together at this hour to hunt with their peers for bargains. It is sport and an opportunity to bond with friends. I have not seen anyone as old as me. Not even close. But then, I am a night owl and usually find myself awake at this hour and until the dawn. This time of year, the dawns come later.

When I am sad, my consciousness cherry-picks from my memories only the sad ones. I forget the good memories. They are locked behind doors and my fingers stumble trying to find the keys. So what do I do? I sit here with my drink and worry about my mother, my daughter, and my grandson.

Think, think, think I implore myself. Find one key; open one door.

One of Starbucks’ staff just paused in his sweeping to tell me he admired my handwriting. That’s silly, it is poor. I was just rushing out notes. I told him I can do much better with a little effort. They’ve stopped teaching cursive writing in many American schools. We had a brief discussion and agreed there isn’t much need for handwriting, we all use keyboards now. I explained that I would be transferring these notes to a file later via a keyboard.

I asked him about his accent. He is from Manchester, England. I tell him I’m moving to the United Kingdom in August. The young man has been here since he was eleven and he misses Britain. He wants to go home. He says he envies me.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.