There’s No Knowing by Michael O'Keefe

BOMB 30 Winter 1990
030 Winter 1989 90

After walking through a dark place that reflected neither sight nor sound I turned onto a country road and felt the soft reassurance of ice patches half melted and giving way underneath the weight of each step I took. The sound of the cracking and water spreading reminded me of any number of winter walks home after school. The memory was the only thing familiar about the street I was walking. It was an idyllic country backroad. Its trees bowed over from each side like fingers entwined in prayer and as I bore off the road onto a driveway I realized there was no one in sight and no other sounds but the alternation of my slight shuffle and strong step. I was leaning heavily on my right foot favoring my left leg like I had when I had been a boy and broken my ankle at the age of twelve. There was a small incline to the driveway that started my heart beating a bit. As I glanced to my right I took in the house that I was walking towards with a disassociated but definite purpose. Its clapboard frame seemed unfamiliar yet the house belonged to me in some deeper way. I was positive I knew nothing about the house and equally positive when I opened the side door and walked in that the kitchen was to the left and the living room to the right. There were three bedrooms upstairs, and I was sure that I had never seen any of it before.

I stood by the wooden table flanked by matching benches and waited for the woman at the sink to turn around. She wore a dress that was popular in the late Forties. The hem fell in below the knees. There were pleats all around it that rose to meet at a gathered waist. The shoulders puffed a bit with their own little pleats. They were trimmed in white lace. The fabric was a print of marigolds on a dark blue field. The woman in it stood just over 5’4” and had short red hair. She wore pearl earrings and as she turned to me she asked me if I would like a cool glass of water. I realized two things about her. She was a lovely twenty some year old woman. And she was my mother.

I stood motionless for minutes it seemed but really it was moments.

“Mick, I said would you like a glass of cool water?”

My mother stood before me as she had stood before my father, probably. Open, young and eager to please.

Her look was so relaxed I wanted to cry. Not because I wanted her comfort or support but because she had lost all the baggage of her sixty two years. There were no creases in her soft and pale Irish complexion. Only freckles across her strong straight nose.

There were no signs of the skin cancer operations that had scarred her high cheeks.

There was no dye in her hair. It was naturally red. No folds under her chin. Her jaw was strong and her look was electric in its simplicity. She smiled and said, “Mick do you want a cool glass of water or not?” She said it with deliberate reference to the fact that she was repeating herself but with a quick undercurrent of love that let me off the hook for not answering right away.

I sat and felt the planks of the bench under my legs. My pants hitched up slightly and as I bent to straighten them I noticed a tear falling on my thigh. I quickly wiped my eyes and greeted my mother with a slight smile as she turned from the sink and offered me my water. The coolness of the glass felt good on my hand. The beads of water that dripped down the side of the glass felt just as good as they covered my hand and fell onto the old brick floor. I drank gratefully, suddenly as thirsty as I had ever been.

Stephanie waited for me to swallow.

Her gaze falling on me like a shawl on a cold winter night.

“More?” She asked.

“No.” I said, pausing and stumbling a bit as I said, “Do you mind if I ask you how old you are?”

I’ll tell you if you will.” She said.

“I’m thirty four.”

“Yes, you would be.” She replied. “I’m twenty six.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Yes Mick, you’re my boy. My firstborn son. I know all about you. Probably more than you would like. But listen we haven’t much time here. I know there are a lot of questions you might ask but forget the obvious ones. Let’s talk about the ones you never asked. The ones you always needed to but never could. It’s all changing so fast as you can see.” She said turning to look out of the window. I followed her glance. There was no longer any frost on the ground. The trees were about to bloom and for the first time since I turned onto the street where she lived I could hear a bird calling to no one in particular just happy to make noise in this unusual silence.

“Let’s not worry about why we have the chance to talk. Let’s just talk, OK?” She reached to touch my arm as she spoke and I thought I would never want anyone to know the feeling I had as she left her hand on my arm, lingering a bit to establish a context for our intimacy. There wasn’t anything sexual about the energy between us. There was a heightened awareness to the state her touch created but in this setting there was no expectation. There was no flirtation and no desire, just assurance. Simple maternal assurance. So I silently agreed and after a pause asked, “Could I have saved you from any of the pain I brought you?”

“No.” She said smiling.

“What about the pain of my father or brothers and sisters. Or those people you relied on for friendship but could never really trust. Those neighbors who were foolish enough to say what they really thought about you in the presence of their kids who readily repeated it to me in the cruelty that only children can inflict on other children. Could I have stopped any of that?”

“No,” she said smiling a bit more than before and letting me know that it was impossible to save anyone from anything except deception.

“Is the reason I have never found a lasting love obvious to everyone but me?”

“Not everyone.” She said and as she did the house and countryside slowly faded and we found ourselves sitting on the steps of what must have been an enormous cathedral. Though all I could see were steps above and below me I knew there was a cathedral at the top waiting for me like a father for a truant boy. His face a mask of stern authority but behind it a gleam in his eye that betrayed a weakness for a son he loved.

“Why are we here like this?” I asked.

“Because you created it this way.” Mother said. “All that I ever was I am now but with a difference. You see me now as I imagine myself. This is how I was in my mind’s eye when I was a child. The woman I would grow to be. This was how I was in my prime. The woman I always wanted to be. And this is how I will always remember myself no matter how much I age. It will always be like this here. In other places I am other things to many people but here I am like this and I will always be here if you want me.”

“Will it be all right?” I asked knowing she would know exactly what I meant by “it”.

“There’s no knowing.” She said and as she did she raised her left hand and I knew that she meant “I have come” and then she pointed her right hand at the ground meaning “to harness this” indicating the earth “and be your guide.” Then she grabbed the calf of my left leg and squeezed it hard until I winced a bit. Knowing now that she was about to leave I said, “What can I do for my friends now. My friends later. My family if I ever have one. When can I see you again? ” I asked urgently as the steps vanished and we stood in a dark place that reflected neither sight nor sound.

“Love them. Lean on me. You can see me whenever you wish. I am right here.” She said receding into a field of creamy white light. Her skin gradually becoming black, her clothes becoming robes of blue and white. She raised her right hand and pointed to the earth with her left and disappeared.

I moved for a while through this dark place looking for something to anchor myself and found nothing. Abiding nowhere I realized I felt stronger than I ever had and that I wanted everyone to know who they were and where they came from. And it was all because of something my mother had said.

She said “There is no knowing,” and I had fallen in love for the very first time.

Michael O’Keefe is an actor. He was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award for his performance in The Great Santini. His other films include Split Image, Ironweed, Bridge to Silence, and the soon-to-be-released Fear. He just completed shooting an untitled murder mystery. Mr. O’Keefe performs his poetry with Poetry in Motion, an LA-based poetry group.

Two Poems by Michael O'Keefe
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Originally published in

BOMB 30, Winter 1990

Featuring interviews with Mary Gaitskill, Carroll Dunham, Richard Price, Eduardo Machado, Sarah Charlesworth, Jane Campion, Fay Weldon, Anish Kapoor, Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian, Katell le Bourhis, and Jonathan Lasker.

Read the issue
030 Winter 1989 90