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
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
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
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
My beautiful boy ---
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,
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
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
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 © Copyright 2001 by Peter Straub.
Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights