Appears in Other Voices #43
There were nights when Mom was dying that I snuck out of the house. I went down to Lexington Center needing to feel what it was like to be the only person walking the streets. I dressed in dark clothes and avoided streetlamps, wary of the police cruisers that roamed up and down Mass. Ave. Sometimes I'd walk over to Battle Green Square and visit the Minuteman Statue, or else I'd lie down on the lawn of Cary Memorial Library and stare up at the black sky. Weekends there were parties at friends' houses whose parents had gone off on vacations, leaving them with grocery money and a spare key to the back door. When Mom was dying I thought about those parents who up and left their kids, and what I thought about was how great it must feel to be able to just pack your bags and go.
Now I think about Mom and Dad in that bed. I think if I had been Dad I would have chosen to sleep downstairs on the couch. Probably she wouldn't have noticed he was gone; yet he stayed there every night, even after the nurses came. I wonder if he knew there was an option. I like to think he did know, and that he slept with her anyway, but I could be wrong about this. For all I know he could have been too scared to move.
One morning I thought to ask the nurse, Belinda, if she ever got tired of watching people die, but she wouldn't answer me because she thought it would be inappropriate, given that it was my mother she was caring for. After I kept pressing her about it, though, she shrugged her small shoulders, looked down at her sneakers, and said: “I get tired like how you get after a long walk.”
After she said that, I wondered if she knew I snuck out at night. If she did, she never told Dad. He didn't find out till later.
I remember the day Mom came home with that perm. This was months before her diagnosis, when she was enrolled in the Social Work Program at BU. The lesbians in her classes all intimidated her with their butch haircuts and combat boots; maybe they even outwardly made fun of her for being a housewife—the only one in the program.
So she went out and got a perm, similar to the one Barbara Streisand had in A Star is Born. What Mom meant to say with her hair like that, I guess we'll never know, though I saw Streisand on Barbara Walters the other night and her hair was straight, and I have to admit, I felt she had lost a bit of her edge.
After Mom got the perm the lesbians lightened up on her. They called her “Mom” in the classroom. She wore the name like a badge. She went out and bought herself a little red BMW with Dad's money. When Dad asked her why, she said: “Because I wanted one.”
A year later, after chemo, she refused to wear the curly wig we bought her.
“What have I got to hide from the small people of the world?” she said.
Small was her word for anyone who lacked empathy.
“Don't be small,” she used to say to people who stared at her baldhead. Or else: “Small people don't scare me.”
One Halloween she took me to a homeless shelter for kids. She gave each kid his or her own pumpkin and explained how to cut a face into it. The kids went right to work but their knives were too dull to make even one decent cut, so she went around again to each kids' table and helped them to cut around the stem. Soon they learned they could lift up the top and peer inside. Mom then stood at the front of the room, reached her hands inside a pumpkin, and brought out the mess. “This is all you really need to learn tonight, kids,” she said. “How to hold the guts.”
Later that night, walking with her through the streets of a decaying South Boston neighborhood, a man approached us with his dick in his hand. Even though I was taller than she was, Mom grabbed my arm and positioned her body between the man and me. “Get a new act,” she said as we squeezed by him on the glass-speckled sidewalk. “This one's been done before.”
When we got back to Lexington, Mom pulled the car over next to the Minuteman Statue. The Battle Green was dark and empty. Some kids had decorated the trees and benches with reams and reams of toilet paper. A long one was wrapped like a scarf around the Minuteman's neck.
Mom got out of the car, and I followed her.
“Bend down and give me ten,” she said.
I laced my fingers together and then boosted her up onto the statue's base; at which point she proceeded to free the Minuteman of any and all vandalism.
“There's shaving cream and eggs up here,” she said. “He's covered in it.”
After wiping off the statue with the toilet paper, she climbed down the back of the base and dropped into my arms, laughing. There was yoke on her jacket, a big wet nasty stain that reminded me of the sidewalk spit I had to step over each day on my way to Lexington High.
I wasn't a pothead. I wasn't big or black or tough. I wasn't Irish, Italian, Greek, or Chinese. I wasn't a fag or a playboy or a rapist. I didn't play basketball or football or hockey. I played a little tennis, but not for the school. I didn't cruise the Burlington Mall on Friday nights. I didn't bag groceries at the Stop & Shop. I didn't hang out behind Steve's Ice Cream smoking cigarettes or drink beer in Willard's Woods. I never sat Indian-style on the floor of the library reading Shakespeare. I never fished for catfish in Granny Pond. I never attended Hebrew school or CCD. I never ate lunch in the cafeteria. I never sang in the choir.
I played Vegas Solitaire, scribbled pictures of men with long beards on the covers of my notebooks, read Stephen King in bed with the lights off, watched cooking shows on Channel 2, then masturbated to the vision of the school secretary—a woman who ate salad every day for lunch and whose plump lower lip almost always showed traces of white, ranch dressing.
The lesbians came over once when Dad was at work. She was closer to dead by then, but still well enough to visit with friends. They crowded around the bed and complimented Mom's baldness. They said they were going to make her an “honorary lesbian.” Then they asked her if she had any advice for them, which of course made Mom smile. She hated to give advice, especially to people she deemed capable of figuring things out on their own. Still, she told them the brutal story of her client who burned down his father's shed. The boy's father had repeatedly raped him in that shed over the course of four years, until one day the boy doused the shed with gasoline and lit a match. “Life is not always such a mystery,” she said, and the lesbians all nodded their heads, proud as hell to know her. They kissed her on the lips. They told her she was beautiful. Some days I can still hear the echoes of their boots on our stairs, and Mom's voice calling after them, “Go get ‘em boys!”
Minutes after they had left, she called me into her room and said she wanted to take a bath. Her hands were clenched in fists. She said it hurt to straighten her fingers. Also, her feet were killing her. She wanted to soak in warm water.
“Take off my clothes,” she said.
She said it twice.
“You want me to what?”
“Take them off.”
“I heard you,” I said. “It's just—”
The buttons of her pajamas were small and slippery and sharp at the edges. It was hard to slide them back out through the slits.
“Come on,” she said. “Force them through.”
“I'm trying,” I said.
It took me two minutes to undo the last button. The skin on her chest was pale, and she had scars. She must have seen me look away.
“Damn you,” she said. “Get me out of these bottoms.”
“Take it easy, Mom,” I said.
“You take it easy,” she said, and then she stepped out of her bottoms and gave them a swift kick under the bed.
“Now my underwear,” she said.
“Do I have to?”
She stared at me for a long time.
“What?” I said.
I pulled them down her legs hard, and when they got tangled around her ankles, I gave up and let her wriggle them off herself.
“Get the water going,” she said.
In the bathroom my hands fumbled over the dials. The water kept changing from hot to cold and then back to hot again without ever stopping at warm.
“Come get me,” she said.
Back in the bedroom I had forgotten she was naked, and she must have seen me look away again because when our eyes finally met, I saw that I had injured her somehow by not looking. I escorted her to the tub without saying a word.
“Damn it,” she said, after dipping her toe in. “Are you trying to burn me?”
When finally she was lying back in the tub, she told me to leave. “Dissection is over,” she said. “Class dismissed.”
In my room I listened to her make frog sounds in the bathtub. What had I done? She didn't call me when it was time for her to get out. Instead she swore at her own bones.
When Dad came home I heard her say, “I'm no longer a woman.”
The next day we hired Belinda. She wore sneakers that were whiter than gull feathers. Not a speck of dirt on either one of them.
You see more when you walk at night. You see people in rooms living their lives. You see where they eat and where they hang out, and if you're lucky, you see where they sleep. You see people eating, laughing, talking on the phone, praying to God. You see what television shows they watch. If their windows are open, you hear their arguments, or you hear nothing but silverware scraping a plate. I once saw a couple making love on a couch. The woman was on top and her head was rolled back, and she was touching her own breasts with the tips of her fingers. On their front porch was a statue of an angel with its wings spread open wide. The thing was beautiful. I think the woman caught me looking at her, and then I think she caught me looking at her angel, because the next day I went to see it in the daylight and there was a thick chain wrapped tightly around its feet. The chain was one of those kinds you use to lock up a motorcycle—the heavy kind that's impossible to cut.
One night I found a little black cricket on the sleeve of my jacket. It sang and sang and sang. They say they make that noise so the females know where they are. I put him in my pocket so he wouldn't leave me.
I wound up at a party where a bunch of kids were playing Seven Minutes In Heaven. They pushed me in a closet with a girl named Paige. She had big hazel eyes that took up half her face. We sat across from each other in the dark listening to the muted song of the cricket in my pocket. Outside the door everyone was chanting “Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex!”
“Lay on me,” said Paige. “We'll pretend.”
I climbed on top of her, and after my boot accidentally thumped the door, we heard crazy laughter. We made a number of arm adjustments, and then Paige let out a false moan. She grabbed me around my waist and grinded her body against mine. I laughed in her ear. The grinding felt good. Her false moans excited me. And because what we were doing wasn't real, I gripped her ass in my hands while she threw her arms around my neck and shouted, “Oh! My! God!”
Later on, in the backyard, Paige and a group of girls took turns holding my cricket, until one of them screamed and dropped him in the grass. The rest of the night they all kept coming up to me, saying, “I'm so sorry. I'm so, so very sorry.”
After the party Paige and I walked home together. She had a few things to say about her brother, Glen, who had flunked out of Syracuse and was back living at home, driving her family nuts. The more she talked about these people I didn't know, the more I thought about Mom disappearing from the Earth. I guess it was the night that brought that on, too—the stars and the black sky and the lonely noise of our footsteps. I imagined the stars were her cancer, and the sky behind them was something else, a place that was safe but almost impossible to reach.
We stopped at the Minuteman Statue and sat with our backs against the stone base. A police cruiser passed us and didn't slow down. Paige told me to put my arm around her, so I did. We listened to crickets in the hedges. And when she turned her head to face me, I thought we were going to kiss, but instead she told me to look up at the Minuteman. “You see that long shadow on his arm?” she said. “That's a vein. You can see it better in the daylight.”
“I never noticed it,” I said.
“Most people don't.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “We walk or drive by this thing three or four times a day, maybe more, never quite seeing it the way a stranger does. It's like the more you're around something, the less you see of it. It's why practically nobody in our class can even tell you what happened here, you know? Because why study something you're already expected to know.”
“Why have the vein at all, then?” I said.
“Tourists,” she said. “They want to see strength in a place like this.”
Before she got sick, Mom was always running off somewhere—a meeting with a colleague, lunch with a friend, a client's apartment. There was a certain sound her BMW made whenever she pulled out of the driveway. Actually, it was more like an audible silence, a pause between reverse and drive. I used to think that sound meant she was considering coming back home again, that if I ran to the window I would see that flash of red pulling in behind the forsythias. How many times, though, did I sit by the window staring out at her taillights going away?
Funny, then, just a few years later to find her there in bed, alone, all to myself while Dad went off to work, and not once did I ever think: “At last, she's home.”
Once I met one of Mom's clients in Harvard Square. She and I were shopping for a birthday present for Dad. We had just come out of The Coop and were headed over to Elsie's for a roast beef sandwich, when a boy came up behind us and shouted, “Mom!” The boy's head was shaved and he was wearing a green bomber jacket, combat boots, and red suspenders that dangled about his waist, like climbing gear.
“Mom!” he shouted again.
“I told you not to call me that, Becker!” she said.
“I know.” He smiled. “I was only joshing you.”
“This is my son,” Mom said.
We clasped hands and quickly let go.
I couldn't take my eyes off of him. I knew he was a skinhead, but what kind? I searched his jacket for swastikas but only found a black X drawn on the back of his hand, a symbol—Mom explained later—that meant he didn't drink or do drugs or have sex. “It means he's clean,” she said. “At least for now.”
Becker was amazing to look at—fierce and beautiful at the same time. It was like coming upon a rhinoceros in the middle of Cambridge. The only thing stranger than my being there with him was that Mom was there too, and she seemed to know everything about this boy: his wants, his needs, what the X on the back of his hand meant. But what struck me even dumber was how Mom seemed utterly unafraid of the boy, and went so far as to challenge his ideas.
“Becker,” she said to him. “Grow up. Not everyone is a fascist. Your job coach is a perfectly respectable human being who loves and cares for you. Now get the fuck over to his office before he changes his mind and gives the job to someone else!”
There was a chill in the air. Late fall. Our neighborhood smelled of freshly cut wood and wet leaves, and even though it was well past dinnertime, the smell of oven-baked food still hung in the air, like chimney smoke. Televisions glowed in the window of each house that I passed. Johnny Carson was on. He had finished his monologue and was now seated behind his desk. When he smiled his teeth were equally as white as his hair. I wondered how hard it was to get up there every night and act happy in front of a live studio audience. The thought made me tired for both him and his viewers.
I went home early that night because the ground was wet and I wasn't in the mood to keep walking through puddles. On my way home I noticed all of the TVs were switched off and the windows were black. By then everyone was tucked away in their beds, and the world felt like a scene at the end of a children's book, when the moon, not yet full, rises above the trees and hovers there, casting blue light into upstairs rooms.
When Dad opened my door I wasn't undressed yet. I was sitting on the edge of my bed unlacing my shoes.
“Where were you?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
He looked at me for a long time.
I said, “Everything O.K.?”
“No,” he said. “She's dead. She died. About an hour ago.”
He sat down next to me. My bed made a creaking sound. I heard a voice in the other room and realized it was Belinda on the phone.
Dad slung his arm around my neck.
“You smell like the night,” he said.
I didn't cry. I didn't hit the wall with my fists. I didn't curl into a ball on my bed. I didn't hold onto Dad like a life preserver. I didn't watch too much TV. I didn't crack a book. I didn't gorge myself with food. I didn't drink myself into oblivion.
All of that came later.
What I did do was buy a watch. It was one of those watches you can take a sledgehammer to and it “keeps on ticking.” I bought three extra batteries for it, so if one ran out I'd always have a stand-by. I strapped the watch tight on my wrist, poking the tiny silver rod into the very last hole. I dialed the number for the correct time and set the watch. I dialed the number again to make sure I had it right. I did. I watched my wrist turn red under the strap, felt the burn of my own pulse trying to free itself. I vowed never to be late for anything again.
About a month after Mom died, I took Paige out to dinner in Boston. We had both recently turned sixteen. We rode the T into the city and ate at a small dimly lit café on Beacon Street. We ordered coffee with dessert and sat with our hands wrapped around our cups for warmth. I enjoyed watching her huge eyes peek up over the rim of her cup whenever she took a sip. Our waiter kept coming by our table and asking us if we wanted anything else. He meant to hurry us along because we were too young to order wine and there were people standing by the door, waiting for our table. Every time someone opened the door, frigid air breezed in. When we finally stood up, I saw the relief on our waiter's face, and I wished then that I had given him less of a tip.
Outside, the streets were slick with freezing rain. Yellow taxis lined the curb, sheltering us from the wind. The people we passed on the sidewalk held each other close, teeth chattering. Cars sluiced by on our way back to the T station. I didn't want to go home yet because home felt emptier than the inside of a balloon. Illness will do that to a house: over time it must blow itself up larger to make more room; but once the illness is gone, you're left with nothing but extra space.
On the T we sat by ourselves on the long red bench-seat. Paige took my hand and blew her breath over my fingers. The train rattled along, moving in and out of tunnels. Above our heads lights flickered on and off. At Porter Square Station a group of loud boys boarded our car. They were laughing and shouting and hitting each other with their fists. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, seeing nothing but flashes of their movements. I sat quiet, hoping they would leave us alone.
The T lurched forward again, on its way to Davis Square. The boys howled when we entered the tunnel. One of them fell on the floor and I was sure the others were stomping on him. It took a few minutes for us to realize it was all an act, that the boy on the floor was really laughing.
But then the T came to a screeching halt, almost throwing us from our seats. The lights went out. We waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Finally the emergency lights flickered on.
“What's going on?” Paige said to me.
Smoke filled our car.
“Let's go over by the door,” said Paige. “Maybe they'll open things up for us.”
We walked to where the boys were all huddled together. One of them was looking out a window, trying to see what was wrong. A thin haze of smoke, made yellow by the emergency lights, filled the car, making it hard for us to breathe without coughing. Paige gripped my arm. I think she was about to cry, when all of a sudden one of the boys put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I fucking know this kid.”
It was Becker, only he looked different. His hair had grown a couple of inches, but his bomber jacket was the same. It was good to see that jacket. I said, “What are we going to do?”
“Nothing,” he said. “This happened to me once before. One of the conductors will lead us out of here, and then he'll walk us back to Porter through the tunnel. They've got flashlights.”
While we waited, Becker stood talking to us.
“Sorry about your mom,” he said.
Becker waved at the smoke between us.
“Your mom,” he said. “Now she was hardcore.”
He squatted down and tied the laces of his boots. I knew for the moment his head was elsewhere, maybe back in her office.
“I went to visit her at the cemetery,” he said finally. “Out there in Lexington.”
“I didn't stay long because I ran into this little kid who was digging in the dirt with one of those plastic beach shovels. I guessed he must have come from one of the houses across the street. Anyway, the kid was digging for his mother. Making a real dent in the earth, too. I asked him what he was doing, and he said it was time for breakfast. I don't know what that kid was thinking. After a few minutes he gave up on the shovel and started using his bare hands to scoop the dirt.”
“Yeah. It was a tough thing to watch—a boy that young working so hard. I just left him there, you know?”
The tunnel was cold and dark. The conductor—a short, fat man with a handlebar mustache and a voice that was louder and more jarring than one of his trains grinding into a station—told us all to form a line and then lectured us on the dangers of the third rail. He appeared vaguely amused by the situation, as if he had spent all night wishing for something to disturb the endless back and forth monotony of his job. For the moment he was no longer just a face behind a window; and you could see by the way he moved along like a dribbled basketball that he was having fun. He smiled at us when we came out the back door and stepped down onto the gravel between the tracks. “Cheer up, folks,” he said. “It's not like we're trapped in the belly of a whale!”
Becker, too, was gaining something from this little breakdown, but what that was I couldn't really say. He hung back with me and Paige while the rest of his crew went giggling on ahead with a plan to harass the conductor.
“Take my jacket,” Becker said to Paige. Paige was already wearing a jacket, but he insisted she take it anyway, resting it loosely on her shoulders, like a pair of costume wings. He had nothing on now but a cotton white t-shirt that glowed in the darkness. The conductor continued to lead us slowly in the direction of Porter Station. I wanted to ask Becker why he was sticking by us instead of going on ahead with his friends, but decided against it, figuring we all have our reasons. And, besides, when it came down to it, I had a need to be led along in this way, just as I had needed Paige to pull me on top of her in that closet. Who can say where a need really comes from? Mom would have said, “It comes from the body.” She would have said, “It's what that ache in your heart is.”