One night, washing up after dinner, I hear the click of the side-gate. A dark-haired figure lopes past the window and my husband calls out, ‘Joey’s here.’ My body tenses, my heartbeat quickens. This shouldn’t happen when my own son comes to visit. But it does, because I never know what to expect. Who will Joey be today – Mr Happy, Mr Sad or Mr Angry?
‘Hi Mum!’ he says as he comes through the back door. I glance up from the sink. He’s smiling broadly, his brown eyes alight with mischief. Mr Happy.
I smile back, thinking how handsome he is when he’s in a good mood. ‘How’s things, Joey?’
‘Good … good.’ He leans against the kitchen bench and sniffs deeply. ‘It smells like updog in here.’
‘Hmmm …’ I murmur, keeping my response minimal, wondering what he’s up to. Probably a farting joke. Theo comes out of his room, still dressed in his high school uniform. Joey calls his brother over. ‘Don’t you reckon it smells like updog in here?’
‘What’s updog?’ asks Theo.
‘Nuttin’ dog,’ answers Joey in a thick gangsta accent and a big grin. ‘What’s up wit’ you?’
Theo reddens, caught out, while I chuckle over the dishes. Joey can be very funny.
‘Want to go for a drive, Mum?’
Nightly drives have almost become a ritual since Joey moved out of home. I tell myself it’s quality time, an opportunity for us to talk without the other kids around, but it doesn’t usually turn out that way.
‘Not really,’ I sigh. ‘It’s been a long day.’ But I know our two year-old is nearly asleep, and our second youngest is trying to finish his homework. I also know how hard it is for Joey to be quiet. I grab the keys from the top of the fridge. ‘Maybe just a short one.’
As I reverse onto the street, Joey plugs his MP3 adaptor into the cassette player. The thumping beat of rap fills the car. The music is so loud people stare as we go past. Each time I turn down the volume, Joey turns it up even louder. I shouldn’t have agreed to go out with him. ‘Put on a song that doesn’t have so much swearing!’ I snap. ‘I don’t want to hear ‘motherfucker’ over and over!’
‘Alright, alright,’ he says, searching through his songs. ‘You don’t need to get angry. Let’s do a lap around town and check out Hungry Jack’s.’
I drive around the block, fuming. Why do I do this? Week after week, month after month? As we cruise past the back of Hungry Jack’s, a local hangout, Joey scans the crowd for someone he knows. He doesn’t seem embarrassed to be hooning around town with his mother. Most boys his age would be learning to drive, saving up for a car or motorbike of their own. But Joey’s never shown any interest in getting his license.
‘Stop here a minute,’ says Joey, leaping out to ask the whereabouts of one of his friends. I wait in the car, a faithful servant. When he jumps back in, we drive to an address on the other side of town, in the housing commission area. I already know this won’t be a ‘short drive’. Joey doesn’t seem to notice when I purse my lips and exhale loudly with resentment.
We stop in front of a brick house. Joey gets out to see if his friend is home. While he’s chatting at the door I remember a phone call with my mother the previous week. She rang to tell me about her friend’s grandson, a young man who was often in trouble with the police. ‘He joined the army and became a different person,’ she said. ‘Maybe this would be a good thing for Joey.’
I wasn’t sure if I wanted Joey to become a soldier, fighting someone else’s war. But the next day I’d looked up the Defence Forces website and read through an impressive list of trade jobs available for army recruits. Definitely worth a try.
On our drive back to town, I sneak the volume down a notch. ‘Oma reckons it might be a good idea for you to join the army.’
Joey looks at me in surprise. ‘I’ve been thinking about doing that already … I want to be a driver.’
‘You could learn a trade,’ I say, pretending I haven’t heard. With a brain like his he could do anything. ‘Telecommunications, or mechanical engineer or systems analyst.’
Joey shakes his head and sighs. ‘You remind me of Marge Simpson.’ He turns up the music again; end of army conversation. This is how it always is when I bring up something serious.
Later I drop him at his place. When Joey moved into a share-house, only a block away from us, I worried it might be a little too close. I was right. He pops around whenever it suits him, wanting food, money, lifts, his clothes washed. Mainly, though, I think he just wants me. For his first year of life, it was only him and me. I’m sure he’d still prefer it that way – to have my undivided attention so I could listen to his stories for hours, spend the nights driving him around town with rap music shaking the car, do all his cooking, shopping and washing.
Give my life over to him.