Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  Which was true. They’d become even more problematic. In the past she’d always had the Helwig Street house, but that had been sold, in part to pay for the long-term care my grandmother required toward the end of her life. What my mother was referring to, however, was that my aunt and uncle had swapped houses with my cousin Greg and his wife, Carole, who had two kids and needed the extra room. Phyllis and Mick now occupied the downstairs flat of the house next door. My mother’s idea, it finally came out, was for them to evict their upstairs renters so she could move in. “I’d have some kind of life there, at least,” she concluded. “Aren’t I entitled to that much?”

  “Are you forgetting you can’t do stairs anymore?” I couldn’t help pointing out. After all, this consideration had governed every apartment search we’d made since Illinois. Indeed, when she visited our house these days, all activities had to take place on the ground floor because the pitch of the stairs up to the girls’ bedroom was too steep. “I could there,” she said, her stony expression daring contradiction. “You forget. I always lived on the second floor in Gloversville.”

  In fact, she went on, nothing was really wrong except Maine. Once back in Gloversville she’d not only feel better, she’d be better. Why? Because there she’d at least be a person. Her family would be close by, along with other people who’d known her all her life, who knew she was a human being, who believed not only in her but also in her resilience and her ability to accomplish things. In Maine, none of the above.

  I didn’t see any point in debating whether she’d be more of a person in Gloversville than Camden, so I moved on to other problematic specifics, though I was pretty sure this tactic would prove equally futile. “How would you do your groceries? How would you get to the doctor or the hairdresser?”

  “Greg would take me.”

  “Greg’s juggling three jobs, and Carole works all week at the bank.”

  “Then I’d go with Mick and Phyl.”

  “Except you like to hold to your own schedule. Remember how you always complained, when you and Grandma lived together, that every week there’d be a different grocery day? They’d call and tell you to be ready in five minutes, and forty-five minutes later you’d still be waiting? How would that be different now? Have they changed? Have you?”

  Her mouth had formed a thin line. “I’d walk to the store if I had to.”

  “In winter?”

  Yes, she insisted, even in winter. Furthermore, if I was worried about money, there was no need. She’d get a job.

  Of course I knew these wild assertions were trial balloons whose credibility she had to test by letting them float away, and that despite the brazenness of this last balloon—that she’d get a job—even she knew it would never gain altitude, no matter how much heated conviction she pumped into it.

  “Mom,” I said, “I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but we can’t make real-world decisions based on magical thinking.”

  She was silent for a while, her face a dark thundercloud. “If only you wouldn’t disagree with every single thing I say,” she told me. “You take such pleasure in shooting down any idea I ever have. Why can’t you be on my side for once?”

  “What exactly would you like me to agree with?”

  She thought for a moment. “That Greg would take me shopping. He’s my nephew and he loves me.”

  “Yes, he would, and of course he does. That’s why it would be so wrong to ask him to. He has too many other responsibilities and too few resources. The last thing he needs is another burden.”

  Now she threw me a triumphant look, as if this was the concession she’d wanted from the start. “That’s all I am, then? A burden? Is that what you’re saying?”

  “No, I’m saying that getting you to the hairdresser is my responsibility, not Greg’s.”

  “Fine,” she said. “Then I guess I’ll just have to stay here in my cage.”

  The next day she called to apologize. After I left, she’d given herself a good talking-to. Her problem, she’d concluded, was always the same. She wanted to be independent, no one’s burden or responsibility, not even mine. I had a career and a wife and two daughters to raise, and she hated that on top of all that I also had to think about her. She didn’t know why her thoughts always returned to Gloversville, as if it were Brigadoon. She knew better. In the future, I was to simply ignore her when she “got like that.”

  The trouble, as she knew full well, was that when she got like that there was no ignoring her. Since then we’d been through the same bitter, futile exercise twice more, the volume turned up a notch or two each time. Now, on the eve of our move to the coast, we were back in familiar territory yet again, the only difference being that this time her fury was exaggerated by further changes in the Gloversville landscape. Earlier that year my uncle Mick had died after a long, terrible illness, leaving my aunt hollowed out by grief and by the guilty relief that comes when a loved one’s suffering finally ends. She and my mother had begun talking on the phone more regularly, usually once a week, usually reminiscing about their girlhoods on West Fulton Street, one of Gloversville’s many immigrant neighborhoods. I think they both enjoyed these strolls down memory lane, and their nostalgia for simpler times made it easy to paper over their many ideological and temperamental differences. Lately, though, according to my aunt, with whom I also spoke regularly, my mother’s mood had grown darker, as if she no longer had access even to the pleasures of the past, and the last time Phyllis asked her how things were going in the present, she said that there wasn’t much point in talking about it, that she had no life, and there was no reason to pretend she did. Hearing this, my aunt called to warn me that another storm was approaching.

  I, of course, needed no such warning. I’d seeded the clouds myself by ignoring my wife’s or and sticking that FOR SALE sign in the yard in front of our Waterville house. Still, when the storm finally broke, even I was stunned by its ferocity. This time instead of telling me what she wanted to do, she was announcing what she intended to do, with or without my help. Having already been through the whole Gloversville scenario, she knew all my objections by heart and had no intention of listening to them again. She wasn’t a child who needed to be told what she could and couldn’t do. She was going, and that’s all there was to it. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. If I didn’t want to pay the movers, she’d leave every single thing she owned behind. If I wouldn’t drive her there, she’d take a bus. If I wouldn’t drive her to the bus, she’d take a taxi. Gloversville was where she belonged. She was going.

  “Okay,” I said, “but where specifically?” I knew, of course. My uncle’s death meant that my aunt was now living alone in the two-bedroom downstairs flat, and it was that second bedroom my mother had in mind.

  “Where do you think? With my sister.”

  The last thing I wanted was to ask the obvious question, but there was no avoiding it. “She’s invited you?” I said.

  This question was so cruel because I already knew the answer. My aunt had told me more than once that she was unsure whether she’d be staying in Gloversville much longer. Both of her daughters had asked her to come live with them, and she thought she might. I wondered now if she’d maybe mentioned this possibility to my mother, if perhaps that was what had precipitated the current meltdown. Because if Phyllis meant to move away, then my mother’s final refuge, her last desperate hope for the independent life that existed nowhere except in her imagination, was disappearing before her eyes.

  “What do you mean, has she invited me?” she demanded to know. “What are you saying?” But before I could explain that I wasn’t saying anything, merely asking something, she continued, her voice now shaking with rage. “Are you actually implying that my sister would refuse to take me in?”

  I took a deep breath and lowered my voice, hoping to balance her frenzy with calm and reason, though in truth I’d never known this strategy (or any other, for that matter) to work when she came totally unglued. “I’m saying your sister rece
ntly lost her husband. I’m saying she’s raw with grief and unsure in her own mind what comes next.”

  “You know,” my mother said, “it’s all finally coming clear.”

  “What’s that?”

  “What you think of me. What you’ve always thought of me.”

  “Mom—”

  “Did it ever occur to you,” she wanted to know, “that maybe I could help my grieving sister? That there might be somebody in the world who actually likes me? As a person? Who might enjoy my company? That instead of being a burden—like I am to you—I might actually make someone’s life better?”

  “Mom—”

  “Why don’t you come right out and say it. You think I’m incapable of happiness. That I’m incapable of making anyone else happy.”

  To my surprise, I heard myself say, with a sinking heart, “All right, Mom. You win. Call Aunt Phyl. If Gloversville’s what you want, I won’t stand in your way.”

  The immediate and profound silence on the other end of the line suggested that I wasn’t the only one surprised by this. She’d been prepared for several more rounds of verbal bludgeoning, but now she had to improvise. “As you say,” I told her, “you’re not a child.”

  After hanging up, I called my aunt and gave her the short version of what had just transpired. “Oh, poor Jean,” she said.

  “Yes,” I said, immediately choked up that she could so perfectly sum up her sister’s plight in three small words, and suddenly I felt both the weight and truth of the bitter questions my mother had just hurled at me. Had I considered even for an instant that she might be able to help her sister in her grief and loss? Had it occurred to me that my aunt might actually enjoy her company? That there actually might be someone, somewhere, who wouldn’t see her as a burden? That there might be a place for her, a life? Because the honest answer to all those questions was a resounding no. No, nothing like that had crossed my mind. Worse, the real reason I was now calling my aunt was to apologize for the fact that my mother, who’d more than once accused me of trying to keep her in a cage, had broken out. Now Phyllis, whom I wanted to spare, was going to have a difficult morning.

  “She keeps saying she wants to be with her family,” I explained, “with people who love her.”

  “But you are her family,” my aunt said. “You and Barbara and the girls.”

  “I know.”

  “It would cost you thousands to get her here, and two months later you’d have to bring her back again.”

  “I know,” I repeated weakly.

  “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. And after all you’ve done … all these years. I wish I knew what to tell you.”

  “I wish you did, too.”

  We were silent for a time. “How’s Barbara?”

  “At the end of her tether,” I admitted, grateful to have my wife, who’d borne all of this so patiently for three long decades, finally acknowledged. “Still here. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine why.”

  “I feel so bad for her.”

  Suddenly I was anxious for the conversation to be over. You couldn’t ask for a better confidante than my aunt, but I always felt like our shared understanding of my mother’s condition, “her nerves,” amounted to a shabby conspiracy against a sick woman, and I suspected Phyllis felt all too keenly that same sense of betrayal. And perhaps most unforgivable was that telephoning my aunt this evening, to prepare her for the call she’d be getting in the morning, constituted poisoning the well in advance of my mother’s thirsty arrival.

  That must’ve happened near the crack of dawn, because it was still very early when our telephone rang, waking us up. “Well, it’s over,” my mother said, not bothering with hello. “I guess I’m not going anywhere.”

  “I’m sorry, Mom,” I told her, but she’d already hung up.

  I lay there in bed for a long time, trying to imagine that terrible conversation with my aunt, who would’ve told her, as gently as possible, that what she was proposing simply wouldn’t work, that most likely she wouldn’t be staying in Gloversville that much longer herself, that by the end of the year she’d be putting the house on the market for what little it would bring, that after sorting things out she’d probably move in with one of her daughters. Knowing my aunt, I suspect she put in a good word on my behalf, reminding my mother that I loved her, that I’d always been there when she needed me, that she belonged close by so I could look after her, that she was lucky to have a son willing to do all that.

  At some point another possibility occurred to me: that my mother hadn’t called her sister at all, that all this was just between us, as it had always been. Locked in a two-person drama, we had no need for additional players.

  BUILDING FLOOR-TO-CEILING SHELVES in the downstairs bedroom, which would double as a library and reading room when we didn’t have guests, was the first order of business in the new Camden house. We’d hired a carpenter to begin work the day after the closing. “This whole wall?” he said dubiously, convinced we were nuts once we explained what we had in mind. After all, the living room already had ceiling-height bookcases, and the wall in question was very long indeed. Nobody had that many books. When we assured him we knew what we were doing, he reluctantly agreed, as if it were a bathroom he was remodeling and we’d instructed him to install three toilets, side by side. “As long as you won’t get mad at me.”

  In a sense the carpenter had been right. We had badly misjudged—by underestimating what we needed. I’d forgotten that in addition to Barbara’s and mine from the Waterville house there were all the books from my office at Colby College. We’d unpacked the books onto the new shelves hurriedly, almost helter-skelter, figuring that later we could rearrange them at our leisure and make sure Dickens and Trollope and Austen were comfortably rubbing spines and that Hammett and Chandler and James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald were in close enough proximity to swap soft-spoken, tough-guy lies after lights-out. Returning from Winslow after packing my mother’s books, I collapsed, Hotel du Lac in hand, into a chair in the living room, too exhausted to do anything but stare at the wall of my own books, as well as the impressive pyramid of those that remained boxed and stacked right up to the ceiling in the corner. I counted these, trying to gauge how many additional bookcases would be required, where on the coast of Maine we’d find them, when there’d be time to look, and where we’d put them, but it had been a long day and I was far too tired to solve a problem with so many moving parts. I even was too worn out to roust myself from the chair and locate the shelf that contained the other Anita Brookners. Possibly they were still in one of those side boxes. Sitting there utterly drained, I wondered if maybe I was slipping into a funk of my own. Over the years I’d noticed that I was susceptible to my mother’s moods, especially after spending a fair amount of time in her company. It was something I had to be careful of, because her periods of irrationality and dark depression had a tendency to infect both my writing and family life. I’d expected to feel better as soon as I got home, but instead, for some reason, I felt worse. Staring at all those books, shelved or not, I suddenly felt something akin to the anxiety—dread, really—that I knew my mother was prey to when her routines were in disarray.

  One of her most cherished (and to my mind absurd) convictions had always been that she and I were essentially the same. If we didn’t always see eye to eye, that was because I was twenty-five years younger; given time, I’d surely come around. Furthermore, at the heart of our most serious disagreements, she believed, was our fundamental similarity—our magnetic poles in effect repelling each other. I’d long imagined that she developed this ridiculous theory in order to explain to herself how she could have brought into the world a kid who couldn’t have been more different from her if he’d been a foundling. But what if she was right? Was I really so different? In this respect her relationship to her own mother—a woman she considered conventional and moralistic and repressed—was illustrative. On the one hand there was no denying the two women agreed about virtually nothing, but there were some tr
uly eerie temperamental similarities. One of my most vivid early memories of my grandmother had to do with her ongoing battles with milk. She preferred milk in bottles, but when home delivery ceased she had no choice but to switch to supermarket cartons, which she invariably tried to squeeze open at the wrong side, then attacked with a dull paring knife. Like my mother, once she embarked upon a particular course of action, however misguided, she was incapable of reversing it, and the consequences could be explosive, even bloody. Many times I’d found her in the kitchen, emitting a high, throaty moan, with a pool of milk dyed pink at her feet. When I asked what happened, she’d show me her punctured thumb or wrist and say, in the voice of a little girl, “I hurt me,” as if the wound itself was the explanation I’d asked for.

  In no time her ferocious, irrational attacks on these cartons became legend, the stuff of sidesplitting comedy when reenacted at family gatherings, but as a boy, though I couldn’t have articulated why, they troubled me. That someone would remain so faithful to a misbegotten strategy made no sense to me, and like most children I wanted things to make sense, for the world to be a rational place. “Gram,” I’d say, picking up the mutilated carton from the floor, “look.” And then I’d squeeze at the correct end, which opened obligingly. I imagined I was showing her that the hurt and blood and mess were all unnecessary, but of course I had it exactly wrong. It was the mutilation of the carton and the wounding that were necessary. These satisfied some need I couldn’t begin to fathom but that was, in any case, real.

  Moreover, while I couldn’t have explained this either, my grandmother’s syntax, as well as the little-girl cadence she used only when she’d injured herself, creeped me out. She never said I hurt myself but rather I hurt me, as if me and I were different people entirely, and the one holding the paring knife had stabbed an innocent bystander. Showing me her angry gashes and puncture wounds, she always seemed to want sympathy and understanding, but these, though I loved her, I was never able to summon. It seemed to me that such irrational behavior needed to change, that warring with the milk cartons was simple lunacy. Perhaps in some remote sector of my kid’s brain I’d also linked my otherwise sane grandmother’s short-lived but recurring bouts of madness to whatever it was that possessed my mother from time to time. I’d be much older before I began to see the good talkings-to my mother was always giving herself as somehow related to my grandmother’s “I hurt me”—both implying a divided or fractured self—but I might have sensed the correlation even then. Nor would the necessary inference have completely escaped me. If my mother was like my grandmother with her cartons, then she’d never truly learn. Like her own mother, she’d just keep hacking away and hurting herself in the process. Which, forty years later, seemed a pretty fair description of how things stood.

 
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