© Stephen Gill, from the series Outside In (2010), stephengill.co.uk. Courtesy of Dillon Gallery
ur heck box
By Catherine Lacey
It had become such a horrible, lonely place, she said. And the wind! She swore the wind was worse than she’d ever remembered and the light just wasn’t as yellow as it used to be and it seemed that even the people had turned rude and gas prices kept rising. Anyway, she was tired of driving and she wasn’t partial to the new preacher at church, so there wasn’t much keeping my mother in Texas.
Maybe, she said in a way that meant certainly, it’s time for me to move to New York.
It was nearly midnight when she’d called. It had only been six months since everything. I put on my glasses and sat up in bed as if that would help me see the situation more clearly.
What about Maude and Jackie?
You know, I don’t think Maude ever cared for me too much, her tone hovering between happiness and shame. She never lets me take care of Jackie, not even now, when you think she’d at least have some sympathy—but she still always takes them to Lisa and Bill, all the time with Lisa and Bill. You know, I think she resents me for being single by choice. And that’s really another thing, you know. You can’t do anything in this damn town without someone looking down on it. Not a thing. You know what? I actually hate it here. I never thought I’d say that, but I do. I hate it. They’re all conservative, self-righteous—and she stammered here as if looking for the right mix of obscenity and politeness—well, blowhards, that’s what.
She made no secret of being upset, and I didn’t know how to react to her plain-laid feelings. Prior to this call she had mostly managed to avoid or dull any colorful emotions, her mood remaining placid and beige.
(The only exception was The Christmas Fight (as I referred to it privately (it wasn’t even really a fight)) which happened two years earlier when I used the word home in reference to my apartment in Brooklyn instead of the house in White Deer where she’d raised us. So that’s it? she asked, in her usual over-pleasant tone. One year away and you don’t even call this your home anymore? She was aggressively frosting the annual spread of inedible gingerbread men (They’re decorative, she always explained) and though I’d actually been in New York almost three years, not just one, I didn’t correct her because her voice had amped to an oddly happy scream—you were born and baptized here, lived twenty-six years here, have a brother and baby niece and sister-in-law and mother here, but now you think your home is some place you hardly even know—well, if that isn’t the biggest insult you could ever say to your own flesh and blood—and in a way, I could see her point. A few years, my name on an electric bill—it didn’t really mean anything. (Then again, I’d never belonged in Texas either—I’d lacked the accent and felt uneasy about how far away the horizon was. Maybe it was the belief that I could be anything in New York, even my boring self, that made me feel so at home there. (But even that was just a theory. (I don’t know why I feel so welcome in such an unwelcoming place.))) Raeford was watching a game on TV, one arm around Maude and the other resting a beer on baby Jackie while she slept in his lap. He glanced at the kitchen, but ultimately gave us the privacy of his ambivalence. Everyone you know is here, Mom yelled. Anything you could do is here! If only you would have seen that and settled down with Daniel—and though I never drank beer I got one, hinged off the cap, and had it rolling down my throat before the refrigerator could shut. I hadn’t been raised for confrontation. She hadn’t taught me how to do this. I took a long slug of beer and hoped she’d just go back to being herself, a former Miss Neshoba County who never let anyone forget she was voted Most Amenable for both junior and senior year of her high school superlatives (though I thought she must have meant Most Amiable (but it was probably true either way (and I wasn’t going to be the one to correct her after all these years))). But you just had to run off to New York to do God knows what and really, any woman would be lucky to settle down with Daniel—(and if she’d been braver or meaner or just more honest she could have said, especially you) but it was then she seemed to realize how unlike herself she was being (how un-amiable, un-amenable) so she stopped yelling and nobody said a word until the dinner blessing. (Amen.) She never brought up Daniel again, but it didn’t really matter. I’d already made it a habit to consider the way my life could have been if I’d said yes when Daniel had asked the question I knew he didn’t even think was a question, just a rite of passage we had to go through. (You could see a marriage approach some couples in Texas the same way you could watch a summer storm churning on the plains, miles before it hit.) It was possible my life wouldn’t have been any more or less enjoyable had I turned from person to wife, wife to parent, had I stayed in White Deer and parceled my hours out to a family, turned my mother grand. (A life might comfortably disappear into a well-worn groove between house, school, and grocery store. (All lives disappear in one way or another. (All hours get spent.))) But as pleasant as it might have been, that kind of life also seemed—somehow—elsewhere, like a dream I could only watch instead of do. We were all surprised Raeford was the first to end up with the spouse, baby, mortgage—Man alive, I would’ve sworn I’d be the one to get out, he said during his only stay with me in the city. And don’t you fuckin’ tell Maude or Ma I was dipping, he said, with a lisp from the chew, you hear? And of course I couldn’t have ruined his image even if I’d wanted to. Raeford’s turn from fuck-up to golden boy began, in his usual way, with an accident. When Maude told him she was just a little pregnant, some kind of man sprung up in him dismissing the ex-quarterback who had been coasting on charm and Coors Light through community college. Ma never again mentioned his long-ish hair, older-than-God Carhartts, or infrequent church attendance. Instead she cooed about her soon-to-be grandbaby and sent me meaningful glances. It was then, at the dinner table after they told us about the shotgun marriage, that I decided and quickly announced I was moving to New York. (I guess I’d been guided by our unspoken sibling law of equal-but-opposite reactions: When I made mud pies in the yard, he played Nintendo. I went to church and he drank by the river. He grew a family; I fled.) Wooo doggie, Rae said in that elevated monotone he used to express both enthusiasm and disdain, city slicker. Big city gal. Mom teared up, excused herself to slice the yellow cake, then let the TV drown out conversation for the rest of the night. It’s just . . . so much, she said as she shut her bedroom door, and she didn’t say another word about my leaving for years (not until The Christmas Fight, or non-fight). The next week we went to the courthouse with Maude and Rae like we were paying off a parking ticket. Maude’s parents brought their own copy of the Bible and Mom threw birdseed at the newlyweds as they walked to his Chevy. Right before Rae dropped Mom and me off at her house, he slapped Maude’s back and said Wooo doggie, got myself a wifey, in his usual way, but Rae doesn’t say anything like that anymore and he doesn’t slap anyone’s back anymore because he doesn’t say anything or slap anything because he doesn’t exist and this, I knew, was the real reason Mom now hated everything in Texas.)
It was June 26. Six months to the day.
You can’t move here, I told her. Everyone you know is in Texas.
Well, look who’s talking.
Mother’s move to New York was just the latest of several problems I had that summer. By then there were Rebecca’s parrots, the Appropriate Behavior Rubrics at work, the increasing hostility of my downstairs neighbor, and the small, strange problem of Maurice.
Maurice’s problem had something to do with integrity or honesty or setting something right, but I never understood how any of it had anything to do with me to begin with. Actually, I don’t know what Maurice’s problem was, but now that I think of it, his problems were probably bigger than all that. His deafness, for one, seemed problematic, as did his reading and writing skills. Let’s just say, for simplicity, that Maurice’s problem was me.
Rebecca told me it was best to keep busy in times of grief and that’s what I was doing when I met Maurice. There had been a late January warm snap and all of Park Slope had flocked into Prospect: coatless, delirious on their picnics, pale limbs exposed, hyper children sprinting over yellowed hills. I had several hours of science podcasts to keep me company on a walk, so I played them one after the other, filling up my head, making no room for awful thoughts. I was walking through a wooded path when this guy, Maurice, ran up beside me. He wore a backwards cap and oversized jersey and motioned for me to take out my earphones. (There was a direness to his face, I thought, or maybe it was just that jagged scar that formed a C from forehead to chin. The fear that he might attempt to rape, kidnap, mug, or torment me rose up as a reminder that I was still an anxious white woman from Texas, full of inherited racial and social prejudice and the defeated expectation that too many men are packed to their necks with a writhing violence. (A more evolved part of myself dismissed that thought (or maybe I just rationalized my fears away when I noticed this man’s unintimidating build and remembered the statistical unlikelihood of a violent crime taking place in a crowded daytime park (or maybe it was just the heedlessness I’d felt since Rae died, that persistent desire I had to move toward life’s chaos before it could surprise me))).)
I took my earphones out but he said nothing so I said, What do you want? in a not terribly kind way. Whatever he had to say or do—I could take it.
He pointed down the trail behind us, then at me, then at my shorts’ pocket, back down the trail, then back at my shorts. His desperate eyes locked on mine.
I don’t know what you want, I said. He made some indecipherable sounds, all vowel and V, then more vague hand gestures. It seemed he was deaf or pretending to be deaf or at least unable to speak, enduring some kind of mental handicap. I shrugged and started to put my headphones back in but he shook his head, pointed down the trail. I wondered if several able-bodied men could be waiting for this harmless-seeming bait to lure me in. I started to walk away, but he got out a flip phone, typed something, and showed it to me.
it feel, the screen said.
It feel? I asked.
He squinted at me, then at the words, hesitantly correcting them: it fell
Immediately, I knew there had been an accident. (In the last month I’d been avalanched by them: A woman had fallen down the stairs in my building, snapped her neck, and died by the recycling bins. A neighborhood boy had been smashed under a truck delivering apples. A distant cousin, Mom said, had stepped on an unseen crack in a frozen lake, then Rae, then a neighbor left a sticky note on my door asking if I could water her plants while she sat shiva for her mother. it fell fit into this world—everything was falling. Maybe an old lady had broken her hip, maybe his mother or grandmother, and he needed me to call for help since he couldn’t speak.)
He nodded and typed something else on the screen.
ur heck box
I went at the words like a riddle: My heck box? You are heck box? Heck box. What did it sound like—hegbogs? Hecho? Maybe the H was silent? Eck? Egg? Egg box. Egg carton?
I gave up and followed him down the trail. A white guy jogged past, his gait wobbling as he took in our unlikely pair. I felt embarrassed to see him noticing us and even more embarrassed that I tried to signal, in a look, that everything was fine. Still—I was following a stranger for an unknown reason. I couldn’t decide if I was being gullible, over-trusting, or something else entirely.
After several yards Maurice jerked still and looked at the ground, peered into a bush, and looked both ways down the trail. Another white jogger went by, gave us a look. Maurice exhaled hard and met my eyes. I wondered if I could go now with a clear conscience that there was no one to save, that nothing had fallen. He grunted and pointed at me, then mimed putting headphones in while walking in place, gazing up at the trees with an expression of despondent terror. (I believed this was an imitation of me.) He pointed to his hip pocket, then the ground, then looked at me like, See?
But I didn’t see. Maybe all the white ladies in the park looked the same and he had mixed me up with someone else. (A woman walked by us in clothes nearly identical to mine as if to confirm this (yellow-y white sneakers, jean shorts, and time-paled shirt (one meant to look borrowed from a man (but had, like mine, been bought))).) Maurice kept looking hard at me. There was something plastic-y about his face, something unbelievable about it. Wide forehead, bushy eyebrows, and an oddly small mouth—more like a caricature than a real person.
mayby the man had it, he showed me on his screen.
So there was no scam, it seemed, no accident, no attempt at crime. There was just something incommunicable between strangers.
I left him by backing away, then walking fast with the strange feeling that I had escaped some kind of harm. He looked dizzy with failure.
The summer I first started wearing a bra, Rae taught me how to fight. He was still a half-inch shorter than me but he weighed plenty more in muscle. Coach Stern saw him play a JV game and asked him to start practicing with the varsity boys, which gave him at least as much swagger as my figure had given me. Our bodies were announcing us as adults, ready for beauty and brutality—uniformed maneuvers and dresses that fit just so. During practice Rae heard some locker room talk about girls from school and though he never told me who said what, he didn’t like it one bit. He wanted me to be able to defend myself. In the backyard he waged slow motion attacks, playing the part of a thug in the darkness.
Now if some jerk comes at you like this—what do you do?
Naw, you gotta do more than that. Get him in the nuts. Get that motherfucker in the nuts, you hear?
He taught me about pressure points that he’d learned from a karate movie, a certain way I could chop someone’s neck that would make him pass out. But nobody ever attacked me. I’m not even sure a single boy on the football team knew my name. I had to wonder if Rae had made it all up, if he’d wanted to be a protective older brother even though he was ten months younger and I wasn’t that much to protect. The closest I ever came to defending myself was when I went on a field trip to Houston and my mom gave me a little pink can of mace.
It’s awfully diverse down there, she said. You just never know.
But nothing happened in Houston. I came back to White Deer just fine and put the mace in a dust-gathering dollhouse, tucking it into a tiny bed under a tiny blanket.
Rae still asked me to practice self-defense moves with him every weekend, and I failed to get any better at them until I realized they were more for him than me. After that my reflexes seemed to quicken. I memorized all the pressure points, could throw a decent hook. It seemed I could successfully protect myself if I knew I was doing it for his benefit, a kind of sibling symbiosis.
The months after Rae’s accident I had the repeated impulse to do something inappropriate, something dangerous, but the only thing I could think to do was not get off the subway when my stop came. I imagined seeing the doors open on 34th Street and shut on 34th Street, then on to 42nd, midtown, and so on, and all the while I’d just watch the stops go, watch the people go and come and go again, watch the tunnels blur outside my window and at the end of the line I’d exit the train as if it were nothing and I’d leave the station and follow the sidewalks until there were no more sidewalks and I’d keep walking until I found myself in a far part of the city and I’d stay there.
I thought about the appointments I’d miss, the people missed, the days missed, my apartment growing dusty, job un-worked, e-mails piling up. I imagined my boss squinting at my disarrayed desk, wondering if my absence was (perhaps) the quiet evidence of my brutal murder, that maybe I was dead in my apartment, lying in my bathtub, disrobed and violated, my blood clotting in a thick, black pool. Or maybe it was just the flu. Or uncurbed addiction, a bender, a secret problem.
If I missed work for enough days and didn’t answer my phone they’d probably call my emergency contact, but the one I’d given was a former roommate I hadn’t spoken to since I moved to my studio. Since I’d not yet had an emergency, my emergency contact had never been contacted, but I guess that’s the thing about emergency contacts (that you never know if they’re any good until it’s too late (until the emergency has already emerged, and a contact is unreachable)).
But I never did skip my stop. I always got out and went to work and no one ever had to call my emergency contact. The longer I fantasized about skipping my stop, the more I realized that it wasn’t the kind of inappropriateness I was really after, so I began to imagine open-mouth kissing a stranger in the street, or doing an improvised soft-shoe routine down the center of a subway platform, or wearing a floor-length sequined dress to the grocery store. But I never did any of those things either.
I stayed the same.
Raeford was dead and I went about my business as if nothing had changed.
I did not become a new person. I did nothing notable. I was still just me.
The only thing I did after Rae died that I hadn’t done before Rae died was tell people that Rae died.
Hey, how’s it going? the barista at my coffee shop asked on my first morning in the city after the holidays and the funeral and the extra weeks I took off. It was the bitter peak of a pitch-black January.
Fine, I reflexed, then corrected myself, No, not fine. I’m terrible. My brother is dead.
Oh, he said. Oh my god. I’m so sorry.
It was hard to talk about coffee after that.
It’s okay, I reflexed again, Well, no, it’s not okay. He’s dead. He’s going to be dead forever.
Then it was even harder to talk about coffee. We were still for a beat until a Sheryl Crow song started blasting and he bolted to the back office to adjust the volume. Usually just the thought of Rae would lead swiftly to sobbing, but in public it was a novelty to feel almost nothing, not even that little tremble under the face.
While the barista was gone, I thought of my brother’s ashes blowing around the Texas plains, swirled by turbines, gathering on truck windshields. (At the funeral Raeford’s high school girlfriend, Mindy Plunkett, had shown up late and wedged herself into the family row. She had a big pink flower in her hair and she nodded at me like we were having the exact same thought. (But I was wishing time could run backwards and she could have not sat in the goddamn family row and she could walk backwards to her home and remove that flower from her terrible head and maybe the days could keep rolling backwards and I could have gone with Rae to that barn party the day after Christmas, or I could have at least driven and picked him up in Mom’s Honda, and if I hadn’t been as tired as I was, if only I hadn’t eaten that piece of yellow cake that was dry on one side from being cut on Christmas Eve, if only that piece of yellow cake hadn’t lulled me into a sugar-induced stupor and if I could have gone with him, driven with him home instead of into that tree, or maybe he could have driven us both, sleeping, into that pine tree, and if the awful smash of metal and speed and sleep could have crushed us both out of this world, then I wouldn’t have to be here with Mindy Plunkett in the family row with that fake flower in her spray-pungent hair.) When she asked in a whisper where the body was I pointed to the urn and Mindy Plunkett flinched as if she’d just realized that’s what dead means.)
Maybe I didn’t need any coffee, I thought, but then the barista was back, trying to mute his compassion, trying to just do his job, to ambivalently make coffee. Sheryl was telling us that if it makes you happy it can’t be that bad, and I gave up trying to find a natural segue between death and coffee, just said, A red eye, please, but when he refused my three dollars I felt ridiculous again. I moped in the corner with my free coffee and ensuing guilt, while listening to a podcast about how geese use magnetic fields to migrate south for the winter.
Rebecca took me ice-skating in Bryant Park that afternoon, insisting it would be good for me to get out of my head, but midtown looked exactly the way my head felt: bleak and crowded, a few freezing vagrants shouting obscenities at no one in particular. It was an overcast Saturday and there were only a few holiday-bloated people going around the rink, their waddle-y movements suggesting hangovers. I couldn’t think of a worse thing to do while hungover. People made less sense all the time.
Rebecca was the brightest spot on the rink by far, her bright blue scarf and yellow peacoat suggesting a radical tropical-ness, like Mindy Plunkett’s flower. All the bright colors and reflected light from the rink made her pale skin seem even paler, but in a way that was more fecund than pneumonic—how did she do that, that healthy-pale thing? I never understood it. When she hugged me I saw a man in a respectable-looking herringbone coat throw up at the edge of the rink. This was just the world: ice and vomit and rare flashes of brilliant colors. Some people drive their trucks head-on into pine trees and snap their necks. Some people wear pink flowers to funerals. I can’t see how anything is organized.
We skated arm in arm because Rebecca has the easy physical affection of someone who grew up in a nudist colony (since that’s exactly what she did). At her apartment there is a buck-naked family portrait, all of them so pale it seems they’re wearing opaque suits of sunscreen.
Rebecca didn’t need to ask me how I was doing. She snaked one arm around mine then folded the other across her body to grip just above my elbow, knowing I needed to be held in place.
The thing is . . . your brother died, she said, breaking a long, skating silence. Raeford died. Not you. You have to keep living.
Her voice was strangely ebullient, like she said this sort of thing every day, like it was her own chipper mantra—Raeford died. Raeford died. My ankles were bowing in, a sore throb in the stretched meat under my arches. I wasn’t built for that kind of thing.
You’re still alive, so you have to keep living, she repeated. That’s all you can do.
I was too saturated with consolation from the funeral and wake to absorb what she was saying, but later I grew to resent this moment. You’re still alive was almost as bad as Let me know if I can do anything, and the empty glare that came after. I wondered how she would feel if she were the one dead and someone was telling her loved ones, Rebecca died, not you! You get to go on living! But I guess she’d just feel dead if she were dead and eventually I lost track of how I felt about her telling me I was still alive, still a life. We went back to our silent skating and I thought about the formation of ice crystals, tried and failed to remember facts from that podcast about them. A semi-androgynous child skated up to us, bright red face under considerable over-bundling.
Are you a princess? it asked Rebecca. Are you Snow White?
I wasn’t surprised. Children flocked to Rebecca as if helpless, like a creepy inverse of pedophilia. They gave her compliments and knock-knock jokes, presenting their random shit as gifts—baggies of cheerios, long-loved stuffed animals. She had a special way with them, but over the years I had stopped paying attention to it. They never spoke to me, those kids, like I was the unknown cocktail waitress clinging to the elbow of a celebrity.
Rebecca unlinked from me and with nowhere to put my free arm, I thrust it into my tote bag, groping the apple I’d just bought out of guilt at a sad, two-table attempt at a farmers’ market. All they had were bruised, worm-dimpled Macintoshes, but after a sample-woman intercepted me with a chunk on a toothpick, I felt obligated even though it was mealy and acrid.
Is she a witch? I heard the precocious thing ask Rebecca. Both of them turned to look at me. My bulky black overcoat, thick glasses, and charmless hair were not doing me any favors. Rebecca smiled, then turned back to the kid, trying to laugh it off. What an imagination you have, she said, but the little fucker kept a bitter eye flashing in my direction as it told Rebecca some dumb story about a snowball (an actual snowball or an animal named snowball?). This did not distract me from the kid’s knee-jerk contempt. I’m not blind. What a little piece of shit.
I wordlessly flashed the apple, making a witch face, then relished the kid’s look of perfect terror.
Too embarrassed to face the barista again, I learned to love the watery sweetness of bodega coffee, the way it left me half-tired and inattentive. (I was less effective at work for a while, but it seemed like everyone was feeling especially February that February. (Even when a late spring came, no one could forgive the long betrayal of winter.)) On the weekends I’d drink my bodega coffee on the little wooden bench outside, unless the hunchbacked man with the cigar was there, not just because the cheap cigar smoke bothered me, but because he always tried to give me advice about how to meet a nice man.
Everybody needs somebody. Aren’t you afraid of being alone? he asked.
Right now I’m just afraid of death.
Aha! The ultimate alone.
Do you know how to get over that?
I was serious but he just shrugged.
I’ll wait, I said.
I’d heard a podcast about a tribe somewhere whose spiritual practices had involved, through intense meditation, briefly dying and coming back to life. Practitioners would slow their breathing until it was imperceptible. Their hearts would stop and they would just lie there for a while, dead, until they eventually woke back up and went about the rest of their days. I can’t remember the exact details of how this worked and I can’t remember the cigar man’s name anymore, just his plaid pants and the polite nods we exchanged after the ultimate alone conversation, because, really, what else was there to say?
Then it was June and I started to feel like a new woman—not in a new-lease-on-life kind of way, more like a refinanced mortgage. I wasn’t in a better place, exactly, but I could make my payments on time—feed myself, dress myself, be at home without crying, no need to wander in public listening to an endless stream of pop-science, burning blisters into my feet. But in the same way warm molecules move toward cool ones, everyone’s problems started coming on, making storms.
Some alleged harassment at the office meant we all had to go to Appropriate Behavior Workshops and for some reason I was asked to be in charge of getting my co-workers to turn in the Appropriate Behavior Rubric Worksheets, which were held in great contempt. They all began avoiding me, took the long way from their cubicles to the office kitchen. I stopped getting invites to happy hour (or maybe that was because I never said yes). Rebecca asked me to take care of her parrots for a few months while she did some volunteer work in Nicaragua and their squawking woke me up at odd hours. My downstairs neighbor told me they woke her up, too, and she swore she could even smell them. An increasingly hostile trail of sticky notes ensued.
Then I was buying my coffee at the bodega on a Sunday morning, counting out my dollar in change, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It had been so long I didn’t even recognize him until he showed me his flip phone screen.
i fawn wat fel, it said.
I was sick of complication and just wanted one day of peace and silence, so I smiled and nodded as if I were refusing, for the hundredth time, to sign up for Amnesty International. But he followed me out and showed me his screen again.
i fawn ur heck box i am go get it
I don’t know what you want from me, I said, and it came out a little too loud and mean. He seemed to almost tear up at this (or maybe that’s just how his eyes were) then ran down the sidewalk.
Hey, cigar man shouted, I didn’t know you knew Maurice.
I don’t. He’s just confused.
Well, what’d he want from you?
Be nice to Maurice, alright? He’s had it hard. He’s had it rough. It’s the least you could do, he said.
Fine, I said, maybe too quietly, maybe so quietly I didn’t say it at all.
I wasn’t in the mood to be a person.
I didn’t know what to do.
I’d thought my refinanced-mortgage attitude had been a signal I was getting better, but here I was again, just as terrible as I’d ever been.
I got in bed at eight that night and couldn’t sleep. Maybe I could meditate myself to death and back, but I wasn’t meditating. I was seething. (Was anger one of the approved steps to appropriate grieving or was that something from the behavior rubrics?) I seethed for a while, then I might have slept or died and was reborn when Mother called around midnight.
Is anger one of the steps of grieving? I asked after she told me she wanted to move to New York.
If you need it to be, honey.
I hoped that gentle tone meant she’d gone back to being who she used to be, that beige woman, the former Miss Neshoba County who had boot-strapped herself up when Dad left her in Amarillo, a woman who didn’t complain about the wind or light in Texas, a mother who had only once raised her voice at me, a Texan who would remain a Texan, someone who could and would keep everything the same. I wanted her to tell me she was kidding about New York, that she wasn’t going to change anything at all—but a few nights later she arrived, refusing my offer of the bed, saying she wouldn’t be able to sleep if I was on the couch. I’m pretty sure neither of us slept because of the birds’ intermittent squawks of Becca! Becca! and my neighbor’s broom beating the ceiling under my floor.
This is just temporary, she said, ’til I find a place of my own. I took to staying at the office late, then taking roundabout routes home, trying to exhaust myself so I could sleep.
What do you do all day? she asked one night, looking bewildered and somehow tiny, shrinking. She’d made an eight-dish dinner, most of it involving corn: creamy corn salad, bean salad with corn, corn bread, corn-stuffed chicken, gazpacho polka-dotted with little white kernels.
I have a job, Ma. I have to work.
With rent as high as it is, I guess you do have to work pretty hard. (A girlish fear was in her eyes, it seemed, and for some reason it reminded me of the only memory I had of Dad before he left. He was sorting the mail, ripping junk to pieces and making neat stacks of the rest, statements or bills or whatever. He studied two sheets of paper, trying to make sense of them, punching a calculator and scratching his beard. I feared the mail for years after, afraid of when it would finally come to me (that his problems would become mine).)
The weekends were somewhat better. I took Mom to museums and free concerts and we had some nice moments. She made us picnics for the park, where we’d end up napping, catching up on the sleep we’d lost to the birds. Eventually she seemed to stop looking for an apartment, though I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Maybe this was my life now. Maybe my mother just lived with me. And anyway, it wasn’t as hard sharing the studio as I’d thought. She did all the grocery shopping and cooking, packed me lunches for work, and even started taking care of the birds, which had, in turn, chilled out enough for us to almost forget about them.
The respite lasted a week, until that last time I saw Maurice. We were walking to the F when he came running up, waving at me with one arm, the other holding up his pants. Mom clutched her purse and whimpered with her eyes shut, like a child trying to make something vanish.
His screen: Ur hack in der got done
He looked happier than I’d ever seen him, ecstatic, nearly manic.
No! Just—ugh, no, I said, hoping he could at least read lips, that he could see a No.
What does he want? Mom asked. What’s going on? She had stopped whimpering now that she realized she wasn’t being attacked. She leaned into me—is this about drugs? Are you involved in some kind of—
He’s just confused. I don’t know this guy.
He seems to know you, she said as she inched away from him, but Maurice seemed to finally realize how pointless this was, how far away he was from making anything clear to me. He walked off, gave up like none of this had meant anything to him.
Then it really felt so fucking sad, that he would someday die with whatever it was he’d tried to say. (How often does this happen to anyone?) Mom was rattled but we went to the Met anyway. A few times on the train she asked me if I was in trouble, and I told her it was too stupid to explain. (I don’t know why I didn’t just tell her what had happened. (It felt, somehow, as private as a vital organ.))
Ladies and Gentlemen may I have your attention please, a man on the train said several times to us, taking our attention whether or not we wanted to give it. He played metallic-sounding music on his phone and danced like he was trying to throw his arms off his body.
Is he okay? Mom asked, I mean, is this alright? Do people just . . . ?
It’s fine, Ma. He wants money.
The dancing man went up the aisle with a cracked take-out container but no one gave him anything.
Ha-ha! You guys—y’all—ha! the dancing man said, like this was all just a hilarious joke we had played on him, as if we had been in on it all along.
The rent is too high here, Ma said, and I was comforted by the way her voice was floaty and oblivious.
At the museum we hardly spoke, just moved in and out of the galleries, drifting by the artifacts as if we’d seen them many times before. Wow, that sure is something right there, she would say every twenty minutes. I could tell she was really just trying to read my thoughts.
We went to the cafeteria in the basement, bought plates of beef stew. In the booth next to ours an elderly couple also had plates of stew and miniature bottles of wine, and it was easy to imagine that this was what they did every Sunday for decades—went to the Met, sat in that booth.
You know, I didn’t realize how dangerous it is here, Mom said.
It’s not that dangerous.
She nodded at this, taking the statement superficially into account, not believing an inch of it.
There’s so much need, she said. And there’s no space. Everyone’s so desperate.
(But what was wrong with feeling desperate? (I kept this question to myself.)) We forked bites of stew and chewed without looking at each other.
I read an article about the best cities to get old in and it said New York was a good place. You can walk around. Lots of resources and hospitals, she said. Community and everything. So, I thought, well, I’ll just move there. I’ll sell everything I don’t need, stuff you’d have to deal with on your own whenever I pass on . . .
Her eyes drifted around the low ceilinged cafeteria in a kind of awe, until she caught the eye of the elderly couple and smiled big at them. They smiled briefly back, in pity, it seemed, then returned to their dinner.
I thought if I lived here I would need so much less. Everyone says that’s good—living with less. And you could check in on me since no one would really do that in White Deer, you know. People just leave each other alone so much there and Maude is too busy and doesn’t seem to care much for me anyway. So I thought, well, nobody really has to die so alone in New York. It might be a good place to get old and die—oh, goodness isn’t that a sad thought?
I shook my head but I didn’t know if I was agreeing or not.
Well, you know, these kinds of conversations aren’t easy.
I filled up my mouth with beef and melted onion and a soft carrot hunk. I leaned away from my plate to push this food down my throat, to turn it into me.
I just want to prepare you for that, you know, since you’ll have to take care of all the arrangements on your own since Rae’s gone and you’re not married. But I don’t think I’ll be moving to New York and in fact, I’m going to buy my return ticket for this week. So—I don’t know. I don’t know what we’ll do.
She pushed a pea across her plate, picked up a roll but lost interest in it before she could lift it to her mouth.
Well! Listen to me—doing all the talking like this. Do you have anything you’d like to say about all this?
There was something I wanted to say, something I needed to tell her. She put one hand up to her face and smiled as if this was some kind of teatime chat instead of what it was—cafeteria-grade beef in a stuffy basement under so many tons of the past.
Don’t you have anything you’d like to say?
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