It's those damn telemarketers again, her mother explains. That's why she answered the phone sounding so irritated. "If it wasn't you on the other end, I was really going to go off. Last night they called at eight minutes after nine."

"That's late," Jane agrees.

Jane is sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. It is a Tuesday night.

"You should have heard me. I really gave it to them. I think I may actually have started yelling. I told them not to ever call here again. I told them they'd be sorry if they did. That I'd report them. I will, too. There's a number you can call. It's a law that they can't call. They don't care though."

"No. Probably not."

"There's a $20,000 fine, they say, if you report them."

"Well. Supposedly. If it's ever actually applied. Even if they do, I imagine it's just a drop in the bucket for a big company. The cost of doing business."

"Still. It's $20,000."

Jane can tell that her mom still wants to believe there's some justice in the world. Punishment for the wrongdoers. In one way, it's touching. Looked at another way, it's the self-righteousness of the little person. Nothing but spite and smug satisfaction. Even the mighty will feel the pinch of the law under which we are all equal. So there! That's the thinking. It amazes and saddens Jane to see that her mother still believes all this, still takes some kind of comfort in it. Although maybe it's a good thing to believe in fairytales, especially at such an advanced age. Maybe it's like believing in heaven. A useful fiction.

Through the open window behind her, Jane hears the young working mother next door. She is yelling at her young son, a cute dark-haired earnest-looking little boy of eight or nine that Jane sees from time to time playing in the yard. The mother is yelling at him for digging up her garden. At first the boy denies it, but, finally, under his mother's relentless questioning, he is worn down and admits taking a small trowel to the flower bed. Now he is in trouble for both lying and desecrating the garden. Why did he do it? The mother screams the question at him over and over and the boy has no answer, not even a lie. He can only weep in an hysterical, gulping fashion.

"Are you still there?" Are you listening?"

"Yes," Jane says, "I'm still listening."

How her mother has gone from a complaint about telemarketing to the credit card offers that flood her mailbox on a daily basis Jane doesn't know. But her mother is off again, complaining about "all those people who charge like there's no tomorrow and then don't pay their bills. They never have any intention of paying," she says with categorical indignation. "Instead we get stuck with the bills."

Her mother, pauses, expecting unconditional

agreement. Instead, Jane says, "Mom, you really have to stop being so hard on people."

Jane doesn't understand why she's suggesting this. Her mother is never going to be persuaded. In her mother's mind, the world is riddled rotten by people who don't take responsibility for their actions. Because she's managed to scrape out a life of self-sufficiency, her mother believes it's only a lack of self-discipline that others don't do the same. Some moral failing must be responsible. She's bought into it all, the whole Puritanical programme. The hook is set. It's part of her guts now. Nothing can extract it. So why is Jane attempting to educate her in class politics at this late stage? What good could come of it? Why does she try to point out that people sometimes just can't pay their bills. That those "free" credit card offers aren't really free. That not everyone gets accepted. That's just an advertising come-on to get you to apply. If you don't have a job, or an address, you really can't just get a card for nothing and start charging. Those cards have outlandish interest rates, too, even for the people who do manage to pay, they are only paying the interest month after month. Their payments never dent the principle. They'll be paying the interest for the rest of their lives. They don't point that out in the offers either. You find that out later, often when your first bill comes. And the cards aren't for unlimited lines of credit. They're usually capped at $1500 or $2000 max. What can you buy for that anyway?

"They can buy something. Something they can't afford," her mother says.

On the other end of the line, Jane sighs, but

not into the receiver. She's trying to be a good daughter, at least now that the time is running out to do so. She's trying to make allowances. Her mother is seventy-eight. She's not going to be around forever, Jane tells herself. Her mother's life has visibly narrowed even in the last three or four years. They'd been estranged for so long before. Why go lock horns all over again? What difference does it make what her mother believes?

Still her mother's attitude touches something off in the younger woman--now not so young herself. There is an unspoken reproach in her mother's self-righteousness, her lack of empathy, her pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps attitude. Admirable, in its place, as a general rule of thumb, but life is made up of particulars. It's made up of individuals and circumstances. Some people just can't make it for one reason or another that we oftentimes can't fathom. Some people just aren't strong enough. Sometimes an unlucky confluence of events hits you, like two waves that swamp you in rapid succession, and you can't make it up for air in between, and you go under. These are all things Jane has learned and learned the hard way.

For all her determination and self-reliance, her mother doesn't understand that she's been lucky. Most people don't realize that they are lucky. They convince and congratulate themselves it's all their own doing that they've managed as we well as they have. They don't realize how close we all are to getting pulled under by the shark of bad luck, how, just beneath the surface, our legs are all dangling tantalizingly naked.

"You should try not to be so hard on people," Jane had suggested. But it could easily be her way of saying, "You should have tried not to be so hard on me."

"Well, sometimes people just get in over their heads," Jane says hopelessly. "It's not always their fault."

Her mother makes a harrumphing sound.

The conversation veers off after a time. To television shows. The weather. Recipes. The daughter tries purposely to keep it light. Succeeds, mostly. Tries to wash the stale taste of the earlier disagreement out of their mouths. Fails, mostly. At least in her own case. They say goodbye and afterwards the daughter sits at the kitchen table, staring at the water glass of marigolds. She found them pushed through the mail slot in her front door among the bills and advertising circulars roots, dirt and all when she came home from work that evening.

Jane sits there a long time, sipping her coffee, staring at the pretty golden flowers, and silently berating herself. Did she really have to start in like that? Did she really have to attempt having a real conversation with her mother? Wouldn't it have been more grown-up, wiser, kinder, even, to just listen? Just listen to the older woman rant and rave and blame others and be mistaken. Wouldn't it have been something like letting an infant cry? Just holding it and patting it on the back and letting it cry until it cried itself out and stopped? It wouldn't have gone on forever, after all, the woman's complaining about telemarketers and credit card stiffs. It would have run its course, eventually, probably sooner than later, so long as she didn't add any fuel to the fire.

Would she never learn? The daughter, that is, not the mother. That it wasn't about teaching anyone anything, or changing anyone's mind. That it was simply about listening. Letting other people cry themselves out and being present while they did. That this was all that could be effectively communicated 99% of the time. That this was usually the best we could ever hope to do. That, as isolated as it still left us, it would have to be enough.

"Besides, what do I know anyway?" the daughter thought, fumbling at the cup. Still looking at the marigolds. She had scooped them up in a dustpan, carried them into the kitchen, and cut away the dirt-clumped roots. Then she had arranged the flowers in the water glass. "What do I know about anything when you really come right down to it?"

Not much. Except that being gentle with others is the only thing she ever did that she never regretted.

Being gentle, like a mother with a baby, accepting everything.

The minute she finished her coffee she was going to go next door and apologize to the young working mother to whom she's never spoken a word, never exchanged more than a passing nod. It wasn't the little boy's fault. He dug up the marigolds and ruined his mother's garden to give Jane the flowers and Jane was certain that the boy probably didn't even understand himself why he did it. It wasn't Jane's fault either, for that matter. But someone had to apologize for the marigolds being so goddamned beautiful.