The Question

Jeff Keane sat at his drawing board and looked at the bizarre image of what was supposed to be his mother and thought, “Did my mom look like that? Was she a lively and vivacious young woman?” He paused, his pen pressed to paper, and realized with horror, “We killed that version of her.”

For a long moment, nothing happened. He looked from the image of his mother, stylized and normalized by his father, immortalized in ink, and he asked the image, knowing no response would come, “Did she used to be sexy?”

Jeff took a long swig of bourbon to wash down some anti-hypertension meds and as the mix of booze and drugs went down his throat, he looked at the blank circle that had become his family’s livelihood for decades.

He nods, knowing what he has to do.

Jeff drew his mother, or at least, that version of his mother, and tried to decide who would ask the question. Dolly seemed wrong, and PJ never spoke. That left Jeffy and Billy. He began to draw his avatar until he realized that, in the world of the strip, it wouldn’t make any sense.

That left Billy, who was technically the one who would “take over” once the elder Bil retired. Billy was the one who “filled in” when Bil needed a break, after all, at least according to the strip. Jeff grinned humorlessly at the lie.

He looked at his mother, unchanged in the strip for decades. Sure, there had been a slight modification when her hairstyle changed but that had been it since the elder Bil had hit upon the design he liked, the one that looked like an idealized Hanna-Barbera character. Jeff reflected that his mother could have never looked like that, or at least exactly like that. She could never have looked like someone worthy of lust.

Yet the question had to be asked.

And so, after he drew his mother and his brother, in the space where the caption went, he wrote, “Mom, did you used to be sexy?”

Jeff took another pause, accompanied by another swig of bourbon. He debated taking another pill, this one a muscle relaxant to be taken as needed. It’s often not but sometimes feels like it is and he decided not to, not yet. The cartoon wasn’t right.

The problem was obvious. He erased the word “mom” and replaced it with “mommy” as if infantilizing it made the question any less weird. He repeated it to himself and looked at the cartoon and the question filled his head.

Did his mommy used to be sexy? She must have, he has the siblings to prove that his father (ever virile in Jeff’s memory, even in his later years) found her so. He tried to equate his memories of her (always less than a woman, just a mother, a shapeless lump that filled the role) with his father’s version of her.

Jeff took another swig of the bourbon and then decided to just down the whole glass, accompanied by the muscle relaxant.

She must have been sexy once. Mommy must have been sexy once.

He handed the cartoon to his assistant, who’d digitize it so it could be sent to the syndicate. Jeff understood the process but his assistant (some twenty-four year old graphic design major who clearly wanted more from life than this, but the work was steady and paid well enough for at least the beginnings of a life) could do it faster and it left Jeff more time to actually draw the cartoons.

Jeff watched the assistant read the caption and almost dared them to ask about it. He knew that his assistant was usually cowed by Jeff’s status, because even in this day and age the man who runs a legacy strip still carried some weight. Yet the assistant looked up slightly, repeating the caption silently.

For a moment, it seemed that the assistant would ask the question. It’s on their lips and Jeff wills them to let it out, almost forced them to do so. No words are spoken, no questions asked. The assistant instead shrugged and took the strip to the computer. It’s not the day’s first, nor its last.

Jeff poured another glass of bourbon and started work on the next one. Someday, he knew, there wouldn’t be a next one. He wondered what would become of the strip when he stopped. He wondered if, perhaps, his own progeny would take over and if, someday, they’d look at Thel (for that’s the mother’s name, a fact all but ignored by everyone) and wonder if their own mother was once sexy, if their grandmother was once sexy.

He laughed, a laugh that turned into a harsh cough.

Jeff took another swig of bourbon, another pill, and got back to work.

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