Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Oedipus Hex

By Randall Osborne

Late afternoons I sat on the sidewalk, crushed bugs, and watched for Mom's black Oldsmobile to make the left turn from Kishwaukee, its blinking yellow signal keeping time with the joy in my small, angry heart. Plink-a, plink-a, the sound inside the car . Where was she?

I knew she worked and her job was necessary because she had to support us now. But at age six I believed she had some secret life she cared about more than me. As I grew, the suspicion stayed, and became a lens through which I viewed almost every woman who showed me affection or placed herself in a position where she might be expected to. It's with me still.

Much later, I gathered evidence—or what I regarded as evidence—without trying very hard. In my first job as a newspaper reporter, I chatted in the courthouse hallway with attorneys who had “known” her, maybe in the Biblical sense, it seemed to me. She had remarried when I was a teenager, so my last name no longer matched hers. Thus I was able to conduct my investigations covertly.

After making a lawyer’s acquaintance, I would ask her.

"Did you know [the lawyer's name]? He seemed to have fond memories of you." She’d turn pink and look away.

* * *

On the afternoon of August 29, 1983, my mother was arrested for shoplifting five packs of Salem cigarettes from a food store. She and Jim had been married for 16 years. They had sold their business by then, leaving them with more than enough money to get by. Enough for cigarettes, certainly.

She had told everyone she quit smoking. From three packs a day—the habit she picked up during years of clerical work—she'd gone to zero. It had been an act of willpower, helped along by hypnotism, acupuncture, and Jim's dismay.

She called me at the newspaper office that day in tears. She had gone through the checkout line, she said, paid for her groceries and been detained at the exit by employees. They asked her to empty her purse.

Indignant, she refused. She had to go, she said. Her mother was waiting in the car.

They wouldn't let her leave. Finally she relented. "You better find what you're looking for," she told them.

They did.

She denied everything and claimed the cigarettes had been planted on her, a frame-up. Jim wanted to sue the goddamned store. They hired my friend Stan Crane, the best criminal attorney in our Illinois town.

Mom didn't know him. In his 30s, Stan graduated from law school in 1975. Too young. They met and started preparing their case.

One afternoon I asked if he thought Mom did it. His hands clasped behind his head and feet up on the desk, Stan regarded me for a moment. Fierce eyes, sharp nose, rueful mouth.

"What brand did she smoke, before she quit?"

Salem, I said.

"That's what they found in her purse, five packs of Salem cigarettes. Do you think she did it?"

I shrugged. In the course of covering trials—and in the course of everything else—I had learned not to accept anything at face value. Still…

Stan cleared his throat. "She tells me she didn't do it, so as far as I'm concerned, she didn't do it. But I'll have a tough time selling that to the jury. The police report says a store employee saw her."

But why? If she was ashamed at her inability to quit, she could have paid for the cigarettes—Jim didn't limit her to an allowance—and she could have smoked them alone, later. No one would have known.

He shrugged. "Sometimes these crimes have sexual overtones."

Menopause, he must have meant. Mom had just turned 50. I didn't want to think about it.

As part of the plea bargain, she paid a $35 fine and served three months of court supervision, and by the end of the year the state's attorney had dismissed the case, Jim forgot about suing the goddamned store, and Mom never mentioned the episode again, nor did I.

* * *

Guilty, not guilty. I don't like the choices. I can picture her darting eyes and quick hands, and I can hear the crunch of the cellophane when she stuffs the packs into her purse, but I can't bring myself to say the word. Guilty.

In later years Mom returned to her Salem habit openly. She hacked and choked as she lit up one after another. Jim, by dying, had left her. She used the habit he hated as a way to follow him, and her method worked.

"Let it go." The afternoon of Mom's final court hearing, Stan leaned forward in his chair. "We got her a good deal, so just let it go."

A former Marine, the fast-striding, blunt-talking lawyer had charmed my mother. She appreciated justice and she liked lawyers. She always had.

"Mom told me the other day she really admires you."

"I know she does." Stan tapped his pen idly on the edge of an ashtray. "I know she does." Of course she did. He got her a deal. Tap, tap.

For a moment there was only traffic noise below his office and the tapping of Stan's pen against the ashtray, in a steady rhythm I recognized but could not quite identify. Then, down the long avenue of time, through the fog of my failure to let it go, I did.


Randall Osborne is a writer who lives across the bridge (yes, that bridge) from San Francisco. He is finishing a book of stories. Find out more about his work at


 Photo "Smoking" courtesy of Gail Kewney.

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