Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  Which I kind of understood, and was why, despite having had to do it a dozen times or more, I never minded packing up her books for each subsequent move. My mother had what you could call a library. While there were fewer than five hundred books, almost all of them inexpensive paperbacks, some with printed prices as low as a quarter on them, they revealed her taste and personality. I had ten times as many but nothing like a library. My wife and I had combined our books long ago—our tastes mostly compatible if not identical—and many on our shelves were written by former students or colleagues. An astonishing number were advance readers’ editions sent by publishers hoping for endorsements, and of course there were others that for one reason or another I felt obliged to read. Barbara and I both have a hard time disposing of books, even those we don’t like, aware that behind even the most wretched failures there’s an author who slaved lovingly, for who knows how long. That’s a sentimental attitude, of course, and if you indulge it, you’ll never have a real library, certainly not one like my mother’s. If a stranger came into her apartment, a quick scan of her books would give him a pretty good idea of who she was, whereas all he could say about ours was, Boy, these people sure have a lot of books.

  “Why don’t you let me buy you another bookcase,” I said, going back to work. “Your new apartment’s bigger. I’m pretty sure there’d be room.”

  What I was really hoping to elicit was some kind of enthusiasm for her new place, though I was pretty sure no such remarks would be forthcoming. Her next apartment, in an assisted-living facility, was very expensive (though we’d concealed the cost from her) and upscale, and she hated everything about it: the cheery regimented activities, the noonday meal in the large dining room, the railings along every hallway (implying that everyone not on a walker would need to clutch onto these in order to keep upright), the van used to ferry residents to the supermarket and the doctor and the hairdresser (which she’d never take because “my son does all that”). We’d put her name on the list at several other housing complexes, but it wasn’t moving up those lists fast enough, and she grew frustrated with me for not calling every few days to check. I explained this in effect meant I was asking if anyone had died or had been hospitalized or was feeling poorly, because illness and death were what created vacancies. So rather than wait, she’d decided on the assisted living she knew she’d hate, since at least she’d be settled.

  “I don’t want a new bookcase,” she sighed. “I just want all this to be over.”

  The move, she meant, but maybe more than that.

  “You don’t have to go anywhere, Mom,” I reminded her. “If it’s too much, you can stay right here.”

  “We signed a lease.”

  “Those can be broken.”

  “You’ve hired movers. We’ve canceled the cable, the phone … everything.”

  “Yes, but we can undo all that.”

  She rubbed her temples. “Can we please, please, just not talk about this?”

  The apartment in Farmingdale had lasted only a year. It was too far from Waterville, as I’d known it would be, even before I saw it. We’d tried to mitigate the distance by inviting her to dinner every week or so and including her in school plays and other activities involving her granddaughters, as well as college events like the annual Carols and Lights holiday festival. Most important, we strove for continuity by reestablishing our usual routines. Saturday was for grocery shopping, just as it had been in southern Illinois, after which she and I went out to lunch, something she always looked forward to. And of course we talked on the phone during the week. Still, she made no secret of how isolated she felt in Farmingdale, mostly from me but also from Emily and Kate, who were growing up fast. Though there were a lot of women her age in the Farmingdale complex, she’d made no friends there, claiming women from Maine were provincial and clannish and dull. They cared little for politics, less for sports, nothing at all for fashion. They liked their seafood fried and their pastries dense. They were sluggish and self-satisfied. They gossiped incessantly about people my mother didn’t know, and they weren’t interested in her opinions.

  So when an apartment not far from our house in Waterville came on the market, Barbara and I immediately checked it out on our own. That way, if it was a sty, there was no reason to get her hopes up. But it was lovely, half of the downstairs of a large, rambling old house, and the landlord and his wife lived just up the street. About twice the size of the cramped Farmingdale place, it had high ceilings and tall windows, a fireplace, and a nice front porch for summer sitting. Naturally it was more expensive, but we were happy to make up the difference—or would have been if we thought she’d be happy there. Lovely, you see, is in the eye of the beholder, and Barbara was shaking her head in dismay. Over the years she’d grown almost as adept as I was at seeing things through my mother’s eyes, and that’s what she was doing now. The fixtures in the kitchen and bath were of the same vintage as those on Helwig Street in Gloversville, and the fridge wasn’t frost-free. There were outlets in the unheated utility room for a washer and dryer, which my mother, a confirmed apartment dweller, didn’t own. The beautiful oak built-ins would have to be dusted. Ditto the hardwood floors. My mother much preferred wall-to-wall carpeting, since you could run a vacuum over it.

  “You think she’ll hate it?” I asked.

  “Not immediately. Not until after we sign the lease.”

  Which is pretty much how it had happened. A few days later, standing in the kitchen, the landlord and his wife awaiting our decision in the living room, she’d raised all the pertinent, predictable objections. Her back wouldn’t allow her to defrost a refrigerator. (That was fine, we’d get her a new one.) And she had no way to get to a laundromat. (No problem, we’d scout out a nice used washer/dryer unit.) And she hated wood floors. (A few area rugs would do the trick.) Knowing what would come next, Barbara left the room. “And of course the whole place will need a professional cleaning,” she said, sotto voce, drawing her index finger across the surface of the stove. “There’s a layer of grease over everything.” (From the next room came the voice of the landlord’s wife, “What did she say?”)

  So we signed a lease and later, back at our house, my mother called Gloversville to tell my aunt about her lovely new place, how much it reminded her of the Helwig Street house, and how close she’d be to us. To hear her tell it, this move was really for me. I’d grown weary of the half-hour drive to Farmingdale to take her grocery shopping. Now we could shop together in Waterville, and she’d really be part of Emily’s and Kate’s lives again. Her enthusiasm, I knew, was more for herself than her sister. She was giving herself one of her talkings-to, convincing herself that she was doing the right thing, that all would at last be well.

  For a while things were better, but then ultimately worse. It was an old house, so the tall windows, while elegant, didn’t glide up and down smoothly on their fraying ropes, and the glass panes rattled when the wind blew or a big truck rumbled by. Summers, the street was too hot and noisy to sit out on the porch, or so she claimed. Her neighbors weren’t elderly, which meant they made noise. The woman in the upstairs apartment was heavy-footed and played music, and on the other side of her bedroom wall my mother could hear the tenant in the adjacent apartment—a sad young woman—weeping inconsolably over a long-lost boyfriend. I visited regularly and never heard any of this, but the house was old and full of sounds.

  There were other disappointments, too, unavoidable but real. Though she was closer to us now and saw her granddaughters more regularly, they were in middle and high school and had full lives with their friends. Barbara was by then working full-time at Colby College, and I was both writing and teaching, so even though she was now three minutes away instead of thirty, she didn’t see ten times as much of us; the imagined arithmetic was false, as it always seemed to be where she was concerned. And now that she wasn’t in a seniors’ complex anymore, when she went to the mailbox there were no other women her age to talk to, even in passing, about the weathe
r and who’d come down with a cold or had visitors over the weekend. When I called to check on her at the end of the day, she’d say, before hello, “Do you realize that yours is the first voice I’ve heard today that didn’t come from the television?”

  Then one day a bat came down the chimney, and that was that; we were off to Winslow, ten minutes away, on the other side of the Kennebec River, where I’d been tracking a small elderly housing complex, and finally our timing was right. Truthfully, we hadn’t expected this apartment to work out either, but it did, largely because my mother, against all odds, had made a friend there, a woman her age, also “from away” and therefore unattached. Dot was kind and had a terrific sense of humor and also seemed to have the great reserves of patience this friendship would require. She had family downstate, though, and sometimes spoke about moving to be closer to them, talk that always sent my mother into a tizzy.

  Dot was one of my many reasons for feeling particularly dubious about this upcoming move. I was more than willing to make the weekly drive from the coast to take my mother grocery shopping and out to lunch and wherever else she needed to go. Some weeks, if she had a doctor’s appointment, I might have to make the trip twice, a strain, sure, but doable. And of course we could talk on the phone as needed. There was no guarantee she would find somebody she liked as well as Dot in her new place. But my mother believed she could read the future. If she remained in Winslow, Dot would leave, and then she’d be alone. Okay, I said, but wouldn’t that be the time to move? Why not enjoy her friend for as long as she could? Because, I was given to understand, if there was the possibility of moving in the future, that would mean she was unsettled in the present. No, she’d just go. If she didn’t find another friend, well, she’d do without.

  “There,” I said, taping the last of the boxes shut. “Done.”

  “You should go home,” she said, offering up one of her despondent smiles. “You have responsibilities there.”

  “Mom. We’re going to walk away from this,” I reminded her. “I’ll be here an hour before the movers. We let them in, and then we drive away. They’re going to pack everything here and unpack it at the other end.”

  This new moving strategy was one I’d expected her to challenge me on. In the past she’d insisted on being present for both the loading and unloading, as if her physical presence and attention to the smallest details would prevent damage to objects that, once put in their proper and accustomed place, would reconstitute her small interior world. The resulting spike in her anxiety levels in the weeks prior to a move made her impossible to live with, and naturally she’d be wiped out for weeks afterward, too tired and worn out even to eat. Over the last few years she’d become wobbly, unsteady on her feet (in need, actually, of the wall railings her new place boasted). Always managing to position herself in doorways when the movers, carrying something heavy or fragile, were trying to get through, she was a danger to both herself and them. And if anything got dirty or scuffed on the truck, she’d squeal in horror at the smudge and demand that it be cleaned then and there, before it entered the apartment, so everything came to a screeching halt. The placement of every stick of furniture was a battle in itself, and common sense was not allowed onto the battlefield. If the cable plug was on one wall, she’d invariably want her television by the opposite one, requiring the cable company to send out a technician to provide a second outlet. No feng shui enthusiast could take more seriously the arrangement of a bedroom, which had to “feel” right to her, irrespective of function. If there were only two electrical outlets in the room, you could rest assured of my mother’s intention to cover them, after which another electrician would have to be hired.

  I was determined to avoid all of this unnecessary angst by getting her out of the Winslow apartment the moment the movers arrived, establishing her at our Camden house for the day until her things were off-loaded at the new apartment. Toward that end I’d drawn a schematic of her new place and asked her to decide where the major pieces of furniture should go, promising she wouldn’t be held to any decisions and that anything could be repositioned later if need be.

  “Really,” I reassured her. “There’s nothing for you to do. Nothing for you to worry about. Call me if anything comes up.”

  But I only had to look at her to know that her imagination was already running wild. What if they cut off her utilities too early? What if she couldn’t reach me? What if, what if, what if?

  “Would you rather come to Camden with me now?”

  “Dot and I are going to the Lobster Trap. Did you forget?”

  “No, I didn’t forget,” I assured her. “I know you’ve been looking forward to it. I was just offering. I’ll call you tomorrow. We can talk everything through again if you’d like to. Absolutely nothing’s going to go wrong.”

  I was halfway to the car when her door opened behind me, and I heard her calling out. “What?” I said, turning back. She was holding up the Anita Brookner. See? I forgot things. I’d forgotten that, at least. Things could go wrong.

  In fact, though she didn’t say so, everything was going wrong.

  HER MOST RECENT MELTDOWN had been occasioned by a number of related factors that could be reduced to this: our lives were changing. Buoyed by the success of the movie Robert Benton made of my novel Nobody’s Fool and some screenplay opportunities, I’d resigned my position at Colby College to write full-time, a decision that struck my mother as both rash and dangerous. Two decades earlier she’d felt much the same way about my out-of-the-blue determination to become a novelist, an act of hubris, she thought, that threatened my stable career as an English professor. My recent successes as a writer were tangible, but to her they remained utterly baffling. She read each glowing review with genuine pride, often tearing up, and reveled in the modest regional prizes my books garnered. If she’d had the money, she no doubt would’ve hired contract killers to settle the score with critics who had the temerity to doubt my brilliance. After the Nobody’s Fool movie, the novel itself made a cameo appearance on the New York Times best-seller list, which threw her for a loop. “It’s like it’s all happening to someone else” was how she put it, and I sympathized because it mostly felt that way to me, too.

  From various comments she let drop, I knew she was deeply mystified by how many people apparently wanted to read stories set in the kind of industrial backwaters from which she’d worked so hard to escape. Even more perplexing was the fact that I not only wrote about such places but returned to them again and again. After all, I had a Ph.D. and a valid passport and made a good living among distinguished colleagues. Why was I slumming (imaginatively) back in Gloversville? She probably felt quite certain that in short order people would decide they’d had enough of stories set in dirty mill towns, and if I quit my job, where would I be?

  The success of my fiction gravely conflicted with her own experience of life, as well as her profound sense of how the world went round. After all, she’d grown up during the Depression. My teaching position to her felt every bit as solid as the college that employed me. If Colby wasn’t going anywhere and my tenure couldn’t be revoked, then I was set for life or, to use her word, settled. Why court disaster by exposing myself to unnecessary risk? Why choose to be unsettled? As things stood I got a good paycheck every two weeks, whereas an author’s life would be one of feast or famine. Its feasts not only were unpredictable but came intertwined with all kinds of whens and ifs—like, if you can finish the book you’re working on, when you can deliver it—and such uncertainties were dry tinder, lacking only a spark to ignite a conflagration. We already had one daughter in college, and the other would soon follow. Could we cover those heart-stopping expenses by means of my writing alone? I assured her that we could and tried to explain that at least for the moment my being a teacher was actually counterproductive, that the time I spent in the classroom diminished rather than increased my earning power, but that didn’t register. To her, resigning my teaching position wasn’t just folly but a particular kind of f
olly of which she had personal knowledge. Forty years before, on a whim, she’d quit a good job, and look what that had gotten her.

  And it went even deeper than this. One of my mother’s most cherished convictions was that back on Helwig Street she and I had pledged an oath, each to the other. She and I would stand together against whatever configuration the world’s opposition took—her parents, my father, Gloversville, monetary setbacks. Now, forty-some years later, I was a grown man with a wife and kids, but this original bond, she believed, was still in force. However fond she was of Barbara, however much she loved her granddaughters, none of that altered our original contract, which to her way of thinking made us indivisible. She’d never really considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny. If I was about to make a colossal blunder, then it was her duty, her moral obligation, to prevent it. Having been prideful herself, she knew what pride goeth before. What’s more, my pride was risking not just my own future but my family’s, putting them and, yes, herself in unnecessary danger. Because when things came unraveled, a son who at times failed to acknowledge the primacy of the Helwig Street contract might, if there weren’t enough resources to go around, put his wife and children before her. I don’t think these were conclusions my mother arrived at in the front of her brain; instead they were constant, ambient whisperings that originated in the shadowy recesses, as undeniably real as anything in the world for the simple reason that they never, even in jaw-clenched sleep, went away.

  STILL, MY MOTHER MIGHT have been able to give herself a good talking-to and keep the worst of these anxieties at bay had I not compounded matters by announcing, not long after quitting my teaching job, our plan to move to the coast. Not that she didn’t understand the logic. Now that I was untethered to the college, there was nothing holding us in Waterville. A few years earlier, we’d purchased a condo in Camden that we used as a weekend and summer retreat. It was three stories tall, one full quarter of a former Methodist church. Our unit was beneath the smaller of the two steeples, a place full of light and air, especially the master bedroom on the top floor, from which we had a view of the harbor. Barbara and I both loved it there but finally had to admit that it just wasn’t working out. For one thing, our girls were then in high school and hated being yanked away from their Waterville friends and activities. For another, though she never said so in so many words, our having the place in Camden put my mother out of sorts. If we spent the weekend there, I’d have to take her grocery shopping on Friday instead of Saturday, our long-established grocery day. And in the summer, though we frequently invited her to come along, she felt abandoned. She liked Camden itself, its shops and restaurants a vivid contrast to dark, moribund Waterville, but the hills, so beautiful to look at, frustrated and defeated her. All the places she wanted to go were within a hundred yards of our front door, but at the bottom of the slope. She had no trouble going down it, but once there she couldn’t make her legs carry her back up again, which meant that whoever she was with would have to return home for the car. With the part of her brain that was rational and reasonable, she understood our preference for bright, vibrant Camden; the irrational, fearful part, however, harbored a suspicion that we’d purposely selected a place where she couldn’t follow or, if she did, couldn’t function. This was precisely the sort of paradox she was forever trying and failing to reconcile. On the one hand, we’d never once in thirty-five years abandoned her. On the other, we always appeared to be on the verge of doing so.

 
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