Jill and Oh

When Otto Pierson's mother came ambling into his room that night with her hair in curlers, interrupting him in staring intently upwards at his ceiling fan from his bed, she dislodged a train of thought that had felt very delicate and embryonic, and Otto winced. He said nothing, and traced a circle on the palm of his hand, willing Jillian Pierson away. Her face and eyes were droopy like a basset hound's. She spoke no words upon arrival, and instead took a glance at the clothes strewn on a chair by the desk, which she waved away, and then sat down on the newly created surface. She was smoking. The smoke unfurled from the cigarette in dark tendrils.

For a while neither of them spoke. Jillian was building up all her words in her mind, arranging them in the most convenient ways, editing her opinions before she spoke them. She knew to tread carefully around her son, and she was never the sort who went about things whimsically. The image of Otto's mother sitting at his desk in a fuzzy bathrobe and curlers, smoking, wrinkled brow furrowed, was a sight that was neither welcome nor infuriating to Otto. He was in a position on his bed that was somewhere in between sitting and lying down. His back was slouched against the wall, and his head was awkwardly tilted upward. He dwelt in a sea of papers and books and pencils, though each item on the bed looked long neglected and unused. Jillian faintly wondered whether he slept on such a mess, or just took refuge on his floor when he wanted to sleep.

She began to shake her head, and after some seconds closed her eyes. There was a moment during which both of them understood that the silence would now be broken. Jillian drew herself up a bit and patted some ash onto the floor. "Hi," she said. Otto looked at her. She went on, "Well, jeez, I guess I was just wondering how you are, honey. I feel like I haven't seen you in days."

"Huh," Otto said flatly. "I've been here the whole time, you know. In my room."

"I know," answered Jillian rather crossly. "Do you know what, Otto, you don't have to get so goddamn snippy every single time I try and talk with you. I'm just trying to have a conversation with you. Can we do that, please? Without the lousy attitude, I mean." Otto stared at her. Jillian said, "So how are you, anyway, Oh?"

"Don't call me Oh."

"Sorry. How are you, honey?"

Otto hesitated; he had been about to reply with, "Don't call me honey," but something held him back. He chewed on a few different responses but swallowed all of them before they could come out. His ear was killing him; earlier that day he'd been diagnosed with an infection and had to take medicine for it, which he wasn't taking because he didn't believe in medicine. Thus, his ear pounded and throbbed, and he was feeling highly sensitive to any kind of sound. Finally he said, "Ma, can this wait? My ear…"

"Right, of course," Jillian replied distractedly, not processing a word he said. She was staring off into nothing, her cigarette dwindling down and down, its tip glowing dimly orange. Some moments passed, and soon she turned her gaze toward her son in his bed. He was wearing dirty clothes, and there were deep creases under his big eyes. He looked awful, exhausted. Her heart softened, and then she felt a pang of – something. Not quite concern, but something related to it. "Are you okay, honey?"

Otto said, "I am marvelous, Ma, thank you for asking."

"Well, how's school? Can you at least tell me about school?" She laughed then, and told him, "You know, I suppose I should be proud of you just for going to school, and forget about your grades, eh? That's what everyone else's mothers are telling me. They all think you're going to the bad. No," she corrected herself, "they think you've long gone. I am worried you are going. You know, to the bad."

Otto bristled, and sat up a little straighter, crossing his skinny arms. "And what is that supposed to mean? Whose mothers are you talking to, anyway? This is all very out of the blue, here, Ma."

"I know," she said absently, staring off again. She took a drag off her cigarette and exhaled a round and perfect smoke ring, which serenely sailed away. She watched her creation until it crashed into the ceiling and disappeared. "How is school?" Jillian asked him again.

"It's splendid, Ma," Otto told her, "but you still haven't answered my original–"

"Can you be more specific?" Jillian requested. "I mean, you know, I don't really have any kids but you to tell me how their day was. I've got to be humored every once in a while. I haven't talked to your sister in six months." Her face grew very melancholy; her wrinkles seemed to sag lower, to crease deeper.

"Jesus," said Otto. Her sadness was agitating his ear, and he wore a grimace as he said, "Call her. Or write her. Cleo's good at getting back to a person. I mean it. Go bother her, ask her how her school day was. I'm sure she's got loads of fascinating stories about how grand college is, and everything. I mean it. Christ, my ear is killing me!" He squeezed his eyes shut and cupped a hand over his right ear; a pang of agony had just now surged through it.

Jillian narrowed her eyes and tossed at Otto his ear medicine, which had been on the desk, and landed by his feet. "The doctor told you to take it," she told him, and then her voice changed, turned more pleading. "Please take it, Oh. I think it's so foolish not to use the resources our health experts give to us."

"Don't call me Oh," Otto said through gritted teeth. The pain had subsided slightly, and he kicked the small bottle off his bed. "Dad always called me Oh."

Jillian exhaled, crossed her legs, and began to bounce her slippered foot up and down. "For you information," she said, "Cleo can't tell me how her days have been going, because she's all wrapped up in her term thing that she's spending every waking moment researching for. Something on Egypt, I think, for autecology, or something."

"Archaeology, Ma," Otto corrected her, rolling his eyes. "You mean archaeology. Autecology is a branch of ecology dealing with the individual organism or species in relation to its environment. Christ."

"Well, fine," Jillian told him, not looking the least bit offended, or impressed. She flicked her cigarette butt into Otto's trash can, which was already overflowing; the butt merely glanced off and rested on the floor. "At least I know you're studying, then. Is that what you've been doing, all this time, up here in your cave? Studying for school?"

"Yeah."

Jillian looked closely at her son. "What about Piper? Have you been talking to her? I haven't seen that girl in weeks, and she hasn't called. Did you two have a fall-out?"

"No," Otto told her, his face darkening. His voice had suddenly become very tight and low; he averted his eyes. "Just never mind. I don't want to talk about her."

Jillian was quick to change the subject.

"Anyway," she said, "I guess what I'm getting at is that your teacher called me this evening, to talk about… well, to talk about you."

Otto sat up bolt-right, glaring at her, and his ear throbbed madly when he did. "Mr. Kelly?" he said, his tone somewhat panicky. "What the hell did he want? Ma?"

"Nothing," she said. "Well…" Jillian looked uneasy, and wasn't sure where to begin. She took out another cigarette and her little red lighter; it took her three tries to light it. She put it away and took a drag. Exhaled smoke. Finally she said, "Well, Otto, it's like this, for example. Take your paper you wrote last week. Mr. Kelly himself gave me this example, so don't get all huffy about it, all right?"

"My paper?" Otto said, his eyebrows knitting. "What's wrong with my paper? What are you talking about? What did he say?"

"Nothing," Jillian told him. "All he did was suggest that I ask you about the paper you wrote, because apparently it disturbed him a little. I don't know why he said that. I haven't read your damn paper. But he called me up and said he was worried about you, and then he told me about that paper. And then he was telling me how you just go away when you're at school. Go off into your head, I mean. And it's real odd and everything, because you still get fantastic grades. And then you write a paper that has apparently worried the hell out of Mr. Kelly, and he said I should ask you about it, that's all."

Otto closed his eyes, and waited a few moments before asking, "To which paper was he referring?"

Jillian pointed at him with her cigarette. "Don't you give me that," she said sternly. "You know perfectly well, and you'd better let me know what's the big idea, if you want to live to be eighteen."

"Well, I can only assume he meant the paper I wrote on goddamn Icarus," Otto told her. "Hey, by the by, can I have a smoke, Ma? It's been about three hours since my last one."

His mother froze. The whole room was still, except for the smoke drifting up from her cigarette. Jillian's eyes were wide. After some long, long moments, she drew out her pack of Camels, and reached over to hand him one. He took it. "Thanks." Otto used his own lighter, and took a long, relieved drag. He forgot the pain in his ear for a few moments.

"You smoke," Jillian stated, dumbfounded.

Otto looked a little guilty, but he shrugged.

"You wanna tell me about your paper, Oh?"

"Don't call me Oh," he said.

"Fine. Otto. Tell me about the damn paper before I keel over. I'm too old to be up all night." Indeed, Jillian looked rather deflated. Her skin hung loosely on her brittle frame, and her eyes were sunken and exhausted. "Come on," she said.

"Okay," said Otto. "Well, see, basically all I said in my paper was that Icarus was a real scientist, and not a careless idiot after all. Are you familiar with that story, Ma? No? Basically, once upon a time in Greece, two men named Daedalus and Icarus invented themselves wings made out of wax and bird feathers. When they went flying out over the ocean, Daedalus was really careful and didn't fly up too high; he just sailed in the wind currents just above the sea."

"Okay," said Jillian.

"But Icarus wasn't really careful. He went up too high, and the story says that the sun melted the wax that held his wings together, thus destroying them, so old Icarus went plummeting down into the sea, where he drowned."

Jillian said nothing.

"In the paper I wrote, what I said was, Icarus was looked at by most people in the wrong kind of way. Everyone thinks he was just being careless and shouldn't have flown up that high, but I think that's a rotten way to look at it. Icarus was being a real scientist, in my opinion."

"Why's that?" Jillian asked him flatly. Tales about death caused her to feel nauseated. She put out her cigarette without finishing it, and tossed it onto the floor without even aiming for the trash.

"Because maybe he wasn't being careless at all. Well, maybe he was, but maybe it wasn't all for nothing, anyway. All the classical authorities say he was just doing a stunt, but actually, if you think about it, he did bring to light a serious constructional defect in his and Daedalus' flying machines."

"Which is?"

Otto stared at her. "Don't make your wings out of wax and feathers," he said.

"I fail to see how that particular opinion could cause a teacher to feel unsettled," Jillian replied. "There doesn't seem to be anything troubling about it to me. It must have been a different paper."

"Nah, it was probably that one."

"Really? What else did you say in it, then?"

Otto took a drag on his cigarette, and exhaled a wobbly smoke ring far less perfect than his mother's had been. It didn't retain form long, and soon was gone. "I said that some people are destined to die in order to progress science," he told her. "And I also suggested that some people should perhaps do as I believe Icarus did, which was to sacrifice himself to the causes of advancement." Otto sucked on his cigarette. "Obviously Mr. Kelly thinks that means I want to kill myself, doesn't he? Come on, Ma. I know he said something like that to you. Didn't he?" He cocked his head.

Jillian ran her hand over her old face and sighed. She looked so bare and exposed in her bathrobe and hair curlers. "Now, let me see if I can get this straight," she told him wearily. "You wrote a paper saying you think people should kill themselves for science. Is that right, Otto? Do you actually believe that, or were you just trying to be dark?"

Otto shrugged.

"Well, I don't even know what to say at this point," she told him.

"What did you say to Mr. Kelly?" Otto asked her. "Just out of curiosity."

"What did I say, when?"

"When he said he thinks I'd like to kill myself, and all."

His mother let out a short breath, and noticed her son's hand cupped tenderly over his ear. "Would you take the damn medicine?" she said. "Stop being so stubborn. Come on, give it here." She extended her hand to him.

Otto looked cross as he picked up his ear medicine off the bed.

"Would you come over here, please, so I can help you."

"Ma."

"Get over here before I have a brain hemorrhage and bleed over all your things," she threatened.

At that, Otto cracked a small smile. He stood up, disturbing all of the precariously stacked piles of stuff on his bed. A few books toppled over, some loose papers crackled as he carelessly stepped on them. His feet looked huge to Jillian. My god, she thought, did I give birth to that?

Otto stood in front of her, tall and thin as a tree. He looked exhausted. Jillian said, "Stoop down, and tilt your head," and he did. She unscrewed the cap off the bottle and, without looking at the directions, poured several drops of the clear liquid down into her son's ear. She took a tissue out of her robe pocket and handed it to Otto. "Stuff it in your ear and keep your head at an angle," she ordered. "Go sit down. I can't remember what you asked me before."

As Otto made his way back over to his bed, his head tilted to the left, cotton poking out of his ear, he said, "What did you say when – goddammit, this stuff is cold! – when Mr. Kelly said he thinks I'd like to kill myself?" He fell onto his bed on top of all his rubbish, making a loud rustling thump as he did.

"Look, you, he never said that," Jillian told him.

"Come on, Ma," said Otto laughing. The angry pain in his ear had been muted to a dull throb, and he heard his voice muffled in his head when he spoke. "Maybe he never said that exactly. In fact I'm sure he didn't; I'm sure he decorated it with lovely terms and rainbow sprinkles. But I know he said something not far off those lines, however elegantly he put it."

Jillian made an hmph sound.

"So what did he say? What were his exact words?"

"Put out that cigarette before you burn your fingers off," she instructed moodily. "It's nothing but a burning stub now."

Otto flicked it, and neither of them saw where it landed.

"You'll start a fire," his mother scolded. "Go find it and put it out."

"Ma!" Otto cried, throwing his hands up. "Cool off, will you? I do that all the time, and our house has never burned down, has it? Do you remember a time when our house burned down? Just cool off. And stop avoiding my question!"

"I've forgotten what it was again," she lied.

"I asked you what Mr. Kelly actually said, and also what you said afterward."

"Right," said Jillian. She started picking at her thumbnail; it was a nervous habit she had carried since girlhood. She told him, "Well, I hate to break it to you, Oh, but I can't remember every tiny little thing your teacher told me, all right?"

"Please, Ma, cut me some slack, and don't call me Oh," he said. "Never mind then. It doesn't matter what his exact words were. Can you at least tell me what you told him after he was done yapping about all the issues I've got?"

Otto's mother glared at him for a few moments. Finally she said, "I told him to mind his own goddamn business. And then I hung up. Does that satisfy you?"

All was still for a while. The numbers on Otto's digital clock glowed red in the dim light: 1:36am, they read. Jillian felt older than the mountains, and more tired than god. She looked at her son, pale and awkward on his bed, disgusted with her, and with the world. He had his father's eyes.

"I miss him too," she said softly.

Otto looked away.

"Oh honey…"

"It's late, Ma," Otto interrupted. "You're exhausted. You should go to bed, and we can talk about whatever you want in the morning, okay? Just go on to bed. I need to sleep, too. Okay?"

Jillian blinked. "All right," she said, standing up, her curlers bouncing a bit. She gave him a weak smile and headed toward the door. "Good night, Oh."

"Night, Ma."

And he didn't tell her not to call him Oh.

And she was gone.