Stupid me--I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. All along, a part of me knew that I was hitching toward southern Illinois because my mother was passing. When your mother's checking out, you get yourself back home.
She had been living in East Cicero with two elderly brothers above their club, the Panorama. On weekends she sang two nightly sets with the house trio. She was doing what she had always done, living without worrying about consequences, which tends to make the consequences come harder and faster than they do for other people. When she could no longer ignore her sense of fatality, my mother kissed the old brothers goodbye and went back to the only place I'd be able to find her.
Star had been eighteen when I was born, a generous, large-souled girl with no more notion of a settled life than a one-eyed cat, and after I turned four I bounced back and forth between Edgerton and a parade of foster homes. My mother was one of those people who are artists without a specific art. She apprenticed herself sequentially and many times over to painting, writing, pottery, and other crafts as well as to the men she thought embodied these skills. She cared least about the one thing she was best at, so when she stood up and sang she communicated a laid-back, good-humored ease her audiences found charming. Until the last few years of her life she had a soft, melting prettiness that was girlish and knowing, feline and earthy, all at once.
I lived with six different couples in four different towns, but it wasn't as bad as it sounds. The best of my six couples, Phil and Laura Grant, the Ozzie and Harriet of Naperville, Illinois, were almost saintly in their straightforward goodness. One other couple would have given them a run for their money if they hadn't taken in so many kids they wore themselves out, and two others were nice enough, in a this-is-our-house-and-these-are-the-rules way.
Before I went to Naperville, now and then I did go back to Cherry Street, where the Dunstans lived in their various old houses. Aunt Nettie and Uncle Clark took me in as though I were an extra piece of luggage Star had brought along. For a month, maybe six weeks, I shared a room with my mother, holding my breath and waiting for the next earthquake. After I moved in with the Grants, this pattern changed, and Star visited me in Naperville. She and I had come to an agreement: one of those deep agreements people don't need words to strike.
The core of our agreement, around which everything else wrapped itself, was that my mother loved me and I loved her. But no matter how much she loved me, Star didn't have it in her to stay in one place longer than a year or two. She was my mother, but she couldn't be a mother. Which meant that she couldn't help me deal with the besetting problem that frightened, distressed, or angered the foster parents I had before the Grants. The Grants accompanied me on a procession through doctors' offices, radiology departments, blood tests, urine tests, brain tests, I can't even remember them all.
Boiled down to essentials, it comes out this way: even though Star loved me, she could not care for me as well as the Grants could. On those days when Star came to Naperville, we put our arms around each other and we cried, but we both knew the deal. She usually showed up just after Christmas and almost always right at the start of summer, after I got out of school. But she never came on my birthdays, and she never sent me anything more than a card. Birthdays were when my problem came down on me, and my problem made her feel so rotten she didn't want to think about it.
I think I always understood this, but it didn't make conscious sense, a sense I could use, until two days after my fifteenth birthday. I came home from school to find waiting on the hall table an envelope addressed in my mother's back-slanted handwriting. It had been mailed from Peoria on my birthday, June 25. I took the envelope into my room, dropped it on my desk, put Gene Ammons's Groove Blues on the turntable, and, once the music began flowing into the air, opened the envelope and looked at the card my mother had sent me.
Balloons, streamers, and lighted candles floated above an idealized suburban house. Inside, beneath the printed Happy Birthday!, she had written the only message she ever put on one of her cards:
My beautiful boy--
I hope . . .
I hope . . .
Lots o love,
I knew that her wishes weren't for a happy birthday but an untroubled one, which would have been happiness enough. A half second after this insight opened the door, the first adult recognition of my life slammed into me, and I saw that my mother slighted my birthdays because she blamed herself for what befell me then. She thought I got it from her; she could not bear to think about my birthdays because they made her feel guilty, and guilt was the emotion free spirits like Star could least handle.
The sound of Gene Ammons playing "It Might as Well Be Spring" soared out of the speakers and passed straight into the center of my body. In khaki shorts and polo shirts, the Grants were monitoring the progress of herbs and vegetables in their garden. In the moment before they noticed me, I experienced the first in about a month of those What's wrong with this picture? moments, an animal awareness of my incongruity in this sweet suburban landscape. Danger; shame; isolation: exposure. Me and my shadow, there we were. Laura turned her head, and the bad feeling vanished even before her face warmed and somehow deepened, as if she knew everything going on inside me.
"Action Jackson," Phil said.
Laura glanced at the card, then back into my eyes. "Star could never forget your birthday. Can I see it?"
Both Grants liked my mother, though they liked her in different ways. When Star came to Naperville, Phil turned on an old-fashioned courtliness he thought was suave but Laura and I found hilarious, and Laura made room to talk by going out with her for an hour's shopping. I think she usually slipped her fifty or sixty bucks, too.
Laura smiled at the elegant white house and birthday-party froufrou on the front of the card and looked up at me. The second grown-up recognition of my life flew between us like a spark. Star had chosen this card for a reason. Laura did not evade the issue. "Wouldn't it be nice if we had dormer windows and a wraparound porch? If I lived in a place like that, I'd impress myself."
Phil moved closer, and she opened the card. Her eyebrows contracted as she read the message. " 'I hope . . .' "
"I hope for that, too," I said.
"Of course you do," she said, getting it.
Phil squeezed my shoulder, getting into executive mode. He was a products manager at 3M. "I don't care what these clowns say, it's a physical problem. Once we find the right doctor, we're going to lick that thing."
"These clowns" were my pediatrician, the Grant's GP, and the half dozen specialists who had failed to diagnose my condition. The specialists had concluded that my problem was "not of organic origin," another way of saying that it was all in my head.
"Do you think I got it from her?" I asked Laura.
"I don't think you got it from anybody," Laura said. "But if you're asking me does she feel terrible about it, sure she does."
"Star?" Phil said. "Star would have to be nuts to blame herself."
Laura was watching to see how much I understood. "Mothers want to take on anything that could hurt their kids, even the things they can't do anything about. What happens to you makes me feel terrible, and I can't even imagine what it does to Star. At least I get to see you every day. If I were your real mother, and my only chance to end world hunger for the next thousand years meant I had to go out of town on your birthday, I'd still feel awful about letting you down. I'd feel awful anyway, real mother or not."
"Like you weren't doing the right thing," I said.
"Your mother loves you so much that sometimes she can't stand not being Betty Crocker."
The idea of Star Dunstan being anything like Betty Crocker made me laugh out loud.
Laura said, "Doing the right thing doesn't always make you feel good, no matter what anybody says. Doing the right thing can hurt like the dickens! If you want my opinion, you have a great mom."
I would have laughed again, this time at her Girl Scout's notion of cursing, but my eyes stung and a thick obstruction filled my throat. A little while ago, I said that two days after my fifteenth birthday I came to understand my mother's feelings in a way I could use, and this is what I meant. I learned to ask questions about the things that scare you; that doing right could make you hurt too bad to think straight; that once you are you that's who you are, and you have to pay the price.
Excerpted from Mr. X by Peter Straub. Copyright © 2000 by Peter Straub. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.