Cutting Back – Keith Trottier

Robert’s mother hobbled into the kitchen. When had that started? The lively woman he had known as a child was visibly ravaged by time. Her bottle blonde hair that had once been so full sat deflated in shoulder length curls, her muddy roots bleeding into the fading bronze bleach. Her green eyes had become tiny as her once angular face became lost in a surplus of waxy flesh.

“I’m so happy you were able to make it home for the holiday,” she grunted as she moved. “And Gabe’s turkey was amazing.”

“Me too. It’s been too long,” he said as he locked his phone and tucked it into his back pocket. “Yeah, he’s a great cook.”

A crack of a beer can snapped the silence of his brother’s home. It was so loud in the late evening silence that he half expected to see his mother return shotgunning it.

Robert looked at the gold framed photographs and paintings that adorned the walls of Edward’s living room. He had not anticipated the house to be decorated so meticulously. Washed in hues of blue, grey, and white, accented with flashes of gold here and there and brought together with sharp, clean lines the 1950’s starter home had been successfully upgraded into the modern age. The scent of vanilla and spices perfumed the air from burning candles throughout the space and decorated with all manner of neutrally colored plush couches and cushions.

With a slurp and a sigh of satisfaction, his mother limped back to her stool at the dining table.

“How many of those have you had?” He asked.

“Oh hush!” She waved at him playfully with a chuckle. “This is only my second one. I only brought two with me.”

“You brought them…with you?” His phone vibrated from his back pocket and he ignored the urge to grab it.

“It’s how I relax.”

“I can see that…but you need to be careful.” Another, more agitated alert, buzzed like a mosquito in his ear.

“Oh stop. I’m not gonna drop dead from two beers,” she said with another loud slurp.

He raised his brow at her at that statement. “You know that’s not true,” his leg had begun to bounce rapidly.

“That was my high blood pressure.”

“Which you still have. And that,” he said with a nod at the can as his phone spasmed from his back pocket for a third time, “Isn’t helping.” He could feel that itch to check it rising.

“I know. I know. I know. I’m cutting back though.”

How often she recycled his lines. He wondered if she ever heard herself when she thought back on her conversations at the end of the day.

“I hope so…I just worry. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, Mom,” the phone had gone silent and with it the urge to check it had begun to abate some.

She put the beer on the dark wood of the table and gave that familiar warm smile he’d grown up seeing.

“Don’t worry about me, honey. I’ll be fine. I’m made of tougher stuff,” she assured.

“We all get old, Mom. You need to take care of yourself. I want mine and Gabe’s kids to know their grandma.”

She grew quiet, the warmth draining from her face revealing the weariness and concern lurking below. “Well,” she gave a smile that was immediately replaced with a contemplative frown. “At the rate you two are moving on that front I’ll be dead either way.”

“I just wish you’d tell me the truth…I live too far to be able to check in on you and I don’t want your health to be like the divorce,” he shifted in his seat. “I just don’t want to be surprised again.”

“Honey, I didn’t want to worry you while you were away at school,” she recited.

“Well now I worry regardless.”

“I’m sorry, honey…”

“I don’t need your apologies, Mom. Did you ever tell Edward and Brian?” he asked sharply.

“Not yet,” she muttered.

“Mom…really?”

“I didn’t want to worry them.”

“You have a heart attack and the only child you tell is the one who can’t look in on you,” he said shaking his head. “And you told me three months after the fact. Jesus…”

For a moment they both sat quiet. Robert’s phone buzzed once again and instinctively he grabbed it from his back pocket to check what had been happening while he was away. A wave of relief washed over him as he checked his notifications.

“Have you talked to your father lately?” She asked as she put the can back down on the table.

“A few weeks ago,” he said absently as his fingers jabbed at the glass, typing a response to a work email.

“How is he?” She sat forward in her seat.

“Let’s not talk about him, not tonight,” Robert locked his phone and placed it under his leg.

“I’m just asking you how he’s doing,” she remarked with a slighted tone.

“He’s fine. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation about the divorce right now,” he said as his phone buzzed from under his leg. He retrieved it and checked the screen.

“I’m not talking about the divorce. I’m just asking how he’s doing,” she said matter-of-factly and took another drink.

“Why do you care though?” He said as he looked at an image he had posted on an app earlier that day. It had gotten some attention which made him excited.

“I’m nosey. I wanna know everything,” she laughed.

“You need to move on,” he said as he scrolled through news articles now.

“Trust me honey,” she said retrieving the beer, “I’ve moved on.”

“Then why do you wanna know everything he’s doing?” He asked not looking up.

“Because I’m a stalker,” she said playfully.

“You’re somethin’ alright,” he said as he now typed a message to a friend.

“Come on! Tell me, I wanna know,” she pleaded playfully.

Robert’s patience gave out and he closed the phone and shoved it back under his leg.

“He lives a sad, lonely life by himself in a colorless house in Vegas. It’s repressive. I felt the joy leave my body at the door when I saw him in October,” he said coldly.

It was true. The sensation must have been how Dante felt crossing those gates. The house was a ruin of salvaged bits of all the previous homes they had occupied as a family, arranged in all the haphazardness of a denizen of the fifth circle.

Pictures of Robert and his brothers sat arranged on the ground propped against the walls of an empty room. All that had been missing was a few chalk lines, candles and some chicken blood. In the kitchen was the old four-seater table for a family of five with only three chairs now. Bills sat organized neatly in descending columns, waterfalls of cascading stress. The kitchen was equipped with the worst bits of the leftover pots, pans, cutlery and dishware Robert had grown up with. None of it matched. He recalled his confusion at the hundreds of bottle caps his father had thrown into the silverware drawer as if they were shells or colorful glass beads.

His mother’s phone vibrated and she turned to grab it, squinting at the notification that illuminated a wallpaper of Robert and his two younger brothers as toddlers. They stood around Brian, the youngest, who sat in a high chair. Robert and Edward smiling with an uneasiness that couldn’t be attributed to a reluctance to pose.

“That makes me sad…” she paused. “You know he’s on Facebook again, right?”

“No I didn’t. I deleted mine,” he said with a sense of pride. “Why are you even looking him up?”

“Because I wanna see if he’s as miserable as I am,” she laughed forcefully. “He’s back with that crazy woman.”

“Really?”

“He posted a picture of them both on a beach. Did you hear about his last girlfriend?”

“Yeah. You’ve-“

“Edward said she wore a bikini to the beach and it was awful!” she exclaimed delightedly.

“Well when I was visiting him, he told me that’s how he judges if a woman is beautiful or not,” Robert scoffed with an eye roll. “She was a pretty lady, a little heavy on the makeup. But he was showing me pictures of her and while he was scrolling through them I saw a few less than wholesome ones.”

“What?!” She stammered.

“No, no. Let’s drop that. I don’t want to remember them.”

His mother picked the can up and took another drink. “He still drinking?” She asked putting it back down.

“Oh yeah.”

She scoffed. “He told your siblings he’d stopped.”

“All he told me was cutting back.”

She grew quiet, then shook her head disappointedly.

“Do you know why he married me?”

Robert grabbed his phone in the moment of silence and checked his email.

“I needed dental work done and it was cheaper for me to use his insurance than pay out of pocket. So, that week we go down to city hall and get married…” she paused for a moment as she stared off into the distance then chuckled with a huff. “You know where he took us out to celebrate afterwards?… Pizza Hut…. Fucking Pizza Hut….” her voice cracked and she paused. “He was the love of my life,” her forlorn voice quivered as she wiped at her eyes before taking another drink.

He looked up now only having half heard what she said. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“You know…as awful as it was with your father sometimes, it wasn’t all bad,” she added with a sniff. “There were some good times.”

“Yeah when he was at work,” Robert shot back.

His mother laughed heartily. “True. But at least we had a house and money. That was the one thing you could always rely on your father for was to have money in the bank.”

“Yeah, because he’d never let us buy the things we needed. He’d just spend it on his car,” Robert looked up at his mother now. “Mom…please don’t try and make him out to just be flawed. He put us through too much.”

“I know…” her voice cracked. “And I blame myself everyday for staying as long as I did.” At this she began to cry once more.

“Don’t,” Robert consoled. “You did what was necessary to survive, Mom. And none of us blame you for it,” his phone buzzed in his hand and he looked down at it.

“But I can’t even help my children now. I live in a trailer park!” she exclaimed through tears. “God…how did I get here?” her voice trailed off.

“By surviving,” Robert said flatly as he responded to the message he had just received.

Robert’s mother looked at her son as he stared down at the glowing screen in his hand, tapping away.

“Anything good?” she asked with a sniff as she nodded to his phone.

“No…” he said slowly. “I’m waiting on a work email.”

“On Thanksgiving weekend?”

“If you’re salary they own you.”

“Jeez…How’s your…?”

“My depression? It’s alright. Getting off Facebook helped a lot. My anxiety is still…eh,” he shrugged.

“Not like it was though, right?”

“No,” He found himself opening up and closing the same app for the third time now.

“That’s good,” she said with a solemn expression. “I was really-”

“Yeah, therapy has really helped, thank God,” he interjected. “Got me out of that dark place.”

“Good for you honey. I’m so proud of you,” she smiled.

Robert’s leg was bouncing rapidly now.

“I just read an article about phone use. Said that these smart phones are bad for kids. They can get addicted to them, can you believe that? Addicted to your phone?”

“I don’t think you can get addicted to a phone. Social media, sure. It’s designed to be addicting. But a phone is just a tool. Where’d you read this?”

She thought for a moment. “Don’t remember…Probably on Facebook,” she said with a laugh as she took another drink. “It was interesting though.”

“Yeah I’m cutting back. It isn’t good for me.”

“That’s good. You’re right, it isn’t. I wish I could, but I can’t delete Facebook all my relatives are on there,” she sighed. “Maybe someday…” she drifted off as she shook the now empty can.

“Not just, Dad?” Robert asked. “Brian told me you posted on his page the other day.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. Said you called him a piece of shit husband who didn’t even bother to keep in touch with his kids or something.”

She laughed. “I said he changed his number every time one of his kids got ahold of him so they couldn’t keep in touch.”

“Nice,” he said as he scrolled through articles and pictures on his phone.
“It just pissed me off that he posts on there about how great these other women are that he’s dating. Or how he goes camping with these women and their kids or some other shit. He never did anything like that with you guys.”

“Had to save money.” Robert said flatly.

“Family was the only thing your father ever successfully cut back on,” his mother added.

“You gotta just let him go.”

“I know.”

“Then do it.”

“I will,” she shot back a little too quickly.

They sat in silence once more as Robert flipped through his phone and his mother sat at the table beside her empty beer can. She picked up her phone and began to scroll through the various alerts. Just as quickly as she had picked up the device she set it back down.

With some effort she got up from her chair and hobbled back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There was a loud crack and she returned to the chair.

“I thought you only brought two,” Robert said coldly.

“I forgot I left one here earlier this week,” she dismissed him with a jovial laugh.

Robert shook his head as he tapped a link on his screen.

“I love you,” she said as she took a drink.

Robert let out a laugh at the video that played softly in his hand.

Keith Trottier
A student at CCSF studying Computer Science, Keith Trottier is a west coast nomad and a lover of Final Fantasy, cheese and his best friend Haley. He currently resides in San Francisco with his fiancé, Mike, and their two cats Ori and Lir.

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