Elsewhere by Richard Russo

  Except this didn’t really wash either. For one thing, while it might be true that I was good at domestic triage and she sucked at it, a more significant truth was that my mother and grandmother weren’t the only ones who wouldn’t stop flying in the face of reason. It would’ve been nice to see myself as Sisyphus and my current exhaustion as existential, the result of three-plus decades of attempting to correctly sequence my mother’s metaphorical to-do lists without her permission or assistance. But in fact I was worn out from dealing with the consequences of what I myself had set in motion back in the spring when I stubbornly ignored Barbara’s or. Because surely some part of me had known it was folly to plant that FOR SALE sign in front of our Waterville home and even worse folly to imagine I could put my mother and her needs on the back burner for however long it took for us to get settled.

  More specifically, the time had come to admit that none of my plan was working out. Since moving to Camden, we’d become a literally divided family. The girls’ bedrooms were on the second floor of the main house; Barb and I occupied the apartment over the garage, so we were often not aware of their comings and goings. We’d planned on using money from the sale of the Waterville property to convert the upstairs apartment into our master bedroom suite, but it hadn’t even been shown in more than a month, which meant we might be exiled from our house-in-progress for the foreseeable future while carrying two mortgages. In another six weeks Emily’s college tuition would come due, as would Kate’s to her new prep school. The upscale assisted-living apartment we’d eventually found for my mother would cost almost as much as a third tuition. We were keeping the rent a secret from her, but she was bound to find out soon. Barbara, having quit her job at Colby, was looking for work on the coast and not finding any, and my West Coast film agent was looking for screen projects for me and not finding any, and at long last it was becoming clear that the back-end money I’d been hoping for from the Nobody’s Fool movie wasn’t going to materialize for the simple reason that there wasn’t any, at least not for writers, and only a fool would have believed otherwise. As if all this weren’t enough, I was still a good year from delivering (and getting paid for) my next novel. The problem wasn’t sequencing but rather my unwillingness to admit I’d been wrong. After realizing how the Camden house could be made to work for us and then imagining us in it, I’d become not only determined to see it through but also blind to reason. While there’d been numerous opportunities to turn this ship around, I’d stubbornly held to our dubious course, expertly navigating us into Camden’s tiny, expensive harbor, where we were now trapped.

  All of which was beginning to feel like a cosmic I-told-you-so. My mother’s deep conviction had always been that she and I were cut from the same cloth. From the time I was a boy, whenever we disagreed, she’d tell me that later on, when I was her age, I’d think as she did, an assertion that never failed to infuriate me, suggesting as it did that I wasn’t her offspring but her clone, and over the years nothing gave me more pleasure than to reflect on how wrong she was, that I most assuredly didn’t think like she did, and that time had only widened this gap, not narrowed it. What I hadn’t realized was that in addition to being dead wrong, she was also profoundly right, or would have been if her claim had been articulated just a little differently. She said I’d one day think as she did; what she probably meant was that one day I’d be like her—obsessive, dogged, and rigid.

  How could I have failed to see in myself the very traits I’d so confidently assigned to her? The evidence was everywhere. Take, for instance, my freshman year at the university, when I’d become addicted to, of all things, pinball. For several months a particular machine in the basement of the student center took total possession of my mind. It had begun innocently enough. One evening, after dinner at the cafeteria, I’d visited the game room with some friends and wasted a couple of quarters, which back then got you three plays. The next night, though, I’d returned without my friends, and the night after that. Very quickly I began thinking of this machine as mine and during dinner would become panicky at the thought of somebody getting on it before I could. Once I’d claimed the machine, if I had a run of bad luck that necessitated my leaving it to get more quarters, and some other sallow, pathetic nerd was at its controls when I returned, I’d have to swallow a black, homicidal fury. In a matter of days there was simply no life outside the game room. I went to class, of course, but even there, as my professors spoke, I could hear my machine’s distinctive clangs and clanks on the other side of campus, its score hurtling upward, registering bonus points from the bumpers and targets that were hardest to hit, then the lovely, sweet thunk of free games popping up in its tiny window, a sound that caused the other wretched denizens of the game room to suspend their own activities and crowd around. Soon, to ensure I’d have enough quarters to play for a couple of hours, I started selling my evening meal ticket, telling myself I wasn’t hungry anyway, and playing late into the evening when I should have been studying, stopping only when my luck and skill ran out. Worse, since I always told my roommates I was going to the library, they regarded my late nights and my pale, drained appearance when I finally returned to the dorm as evidence of a virtuous dedication they themselves lacked. There were girls from my classes I wanted to ask out, but whatever money I set aside for the weekend would be gone by midweek. I lost weight, becoming as wraithlike as Gollum with his “Precious.” For months that inexplicable and humiliating madness held me in its grip until one evening, on my very first quarter, I entered some kind of zone, winning so many free games that the thought of actually playing them made me ill. Suddenly both sated and sane, I simply walked away and never went back.

  A couple years later, though, in graduate school, I was seized by my father’s particular mania and found myself on a shuttle between the grungy dog track in South Tucson and any nickel-and-dime poker table I could find. The track was particularly depressing, a magnet for the city’s poorest and most desperate souls. Friday nights were the worst because you could tell at a glance that some of the men had come directly from work, that instead of going home, they’d cashed their paychecks at the track and were betting the week’s grocery money. I recognized them—the way they studied the racing form so furtively, their darting eyes mining the abstruse data for tips; they were Gloversville men, somehow magically transported to the desert, and here I was among them again. Being a literature student, I was of course susceptible to metaphor, and when the mechanical rabbit made the turn in front of the starting gate and the foolish greyhounds bolted after it, I remember wondering if I was the only one in the park who understood its terrible significance, and if that made me any smarter or dumber than these guys with low-wage, dead-end jobs. Poker? Well, betting nickels, dimes, and quarters you couldn’t get hurt too bad. That’s what I told myself, but you be the judge.

  Even more horrifying than such ugly, stupid obsessions was the fact that I couldn’t even take credit for triumphing over them. The day I sold blood to buy my way into a poker game, I hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror and said, Enough. Nor, to borrow my mother’s phrase, had I given myself a good talking-to. That would have been pointless. I knew myself well enough to know I wasn’t listening. No, I’d simply bided my time and waited for the current madness to run its course, after which it would likely be replaced by some new, as-yet-unimagined idiocy, no doubt every bit as humiliating and self-destructive as the last. Or perhaps worse. This was what really terrified me. If I could be seduced by a pinball machine, by the tacky allure of a dog track, what would I do if I was offered a real temptation? What if my next obsession took the form of a woman? Would I give myself a good talking-to then, reminding myself that I loved my wife, that I’d been preparing for a life of the mind, that I wanted to be a good man? Or would I become a character out of a Jim Thompson novel, pathetic and helpless in the grip of something strong and merciless and utterly relentless? It was possible.

  The Camden house was empty and still. My daughters had taken summer
jobs at a popular waterfront restaurant, and Barbara was off somewhere. I’d been looking forward to seeing them when I got home, a distraction from the guilt and fear and dread that had gnawed at me as I’d driven home from Winslow, to our chaotic, jumbled library, with its boxes waiting to be unpacked. But for some reason I now felt like unfit company and was grateful to be alone. Unless I was mistaken, something inside my mother had finally broken, and it was my fault. I thought about calling her and apologizing for everything, especially for asking her to do something I knew she was incapable of: to be patient for an unspecified period of time, to live with every last thing up in the air. But then I remembered that she was going out to dinner with Dot.

  Across the room, on a high shelf, were copies of books I’d written and literary periodicals where I’d published stories and essays and reviews. Rising at last, I walked over and ran my fingers along their spines, smiling not so much with pleasure at the achievement as with the realization of its source. The biggest difference between my mother and me, I now saw clearly, had less to do with either nature or nurture than with blind dumb luck, the third and often lethal rail of human destiny. My next obsession might well have been a woman, or a narcotic, or a bottle of tequila. Instead I’d stumbled on storytelling and become infected. Halfway through my doctoral dissertation, I’d nearly quit so I could write full-time. Not because I imagined I was particularly gifted or that one day I’d be able to earn a living. I simply had to. It was the game room and the dog track all over again. An unreasoning fit of must. That, no doubt, was what my mother had recognized and abhorred, what had caused her to remind me about my responsibilities as a husband and father.

  It didn’t take long for me to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because—and don’t let anybody tell you different—novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won’t find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you’ve finally settled everything that can be, you’ll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness—character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty—to my advantage. The same qualities that over a lifetime had contracted my mother’s world had somehow expanded mine. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want—except virtue.

  Real Time

  WHEN SHE OPENED the door, I took an involuntary step back at the sight. Her hair wild, her eyes wide and frantic, she was still in her nightgown, the madwoman in the attic, straight out of Jane Eyre. She grabbed my arm, pulling me inside. “What time is it?”

  Eight forty-five, I told her. I’d arrived, as I always did, at the appointed moment. Being late, even by a minute or two, was always a mistake. When I knocked, she’d often open the door before my hand could fall to my side; in winter she’d already have her coat on, her purse over her arm. “I saw you from the kitchen window when you pulled in,” she’d say, as if waiting at the window was less nutty than waiting at the door. So what on earth was this? Had she overslept? Given how lethargic she’d been lately, it was possible.

  But she wasn’t lethargic now. Indeed, when I told her the time, she flew across the room with alarming haste, especially given her claim that her legs always locked up whenever she had to hurry. On the pad of paper she kept next to her telephone, she scrawled 8:45 and, underneath that, REAL TIME. Then she stared at the pad, as if expecting the words or numbers to change before her eyes.

  “Mom,” I said. “Why did you write down the time?”

  “So I’ll know,” she said, still studying what she’d just scribbled.

  “Know what?”

  “The time. Later, I’ll want to know.”

  “But it won’t be eight forty-five anymore.”

  When she stared at me blankly, I decided to try a different tack. “Mom, did you forget about the doctor?” We were due at his office in half an hour.

  Abject terror now. “Did we miss the appointment?”

  “No, there’s plenty of time. But you need to get dressed.”

  “I can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “I haven’t showered. I didn’t know what time it was.”

  “You can shower when you get home.”

  She blinked at me in incomprehension, then gazed aimlessly around her new apartment. Was this home?

  “Do you think you can get dressed?” She followed me into the bedroom, where the clothes she’d planned to wear were hanging on the inside doorknob. I pointed out her dresser, where the day before she and Barbara had arranged her undergarments in the top drawers.

  She sat down on the bed. “I need to think.” She picked up her alarm clock and peered at it. For some reason it said 3:17.

  “You need to get dressed, Mom. So we can go to the doctor.”

  Terror again. “Did we miss the appointment?”

  “Just get dressed, okay?”

  In the living room I called home, catching Barbara just as she was about to leave the house to run an errand. “I need you,” I told her. “Right away, actually.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I wish I knew. Maybe another TIA.” Somehow I didn’t think so, though. Her ministrokes always left my mother exhausted, one side of her face tingling, her speech for a time impaired. But she always knew what they were and what had just happened to her. This was something new. Except for the fact that she wasn’t making any sense, her speech seemed fine. “She’s disoriented. Confused.”

  It would take Barbara twenty minutes to get here. I called the doctor’s office to say we’d be a few minutes late. Setting the receiver back in its cradle, I noticed that the clock on the lamp table said 11:22. The one on top of the TV said 7:03; the one on the stove, 1:54. All these clocks had been set correctly the day before. “How you coming, Mom?” I called.

  No answer.

  The bedroom door was open. “Mom?” I said.

  She was sitting on the bed, still in her nightgown, her back to me. Morning light was filtering in through the curtain, but the room was dark. In her hands was her favorite clock, the gold-plated one I’d bought her for Christmas years ago. At first I thought she was winding it, and started to tell her that while time was of the essence, the clock, ironically, wasn’t. She wasn’t winding it, though, just making the hands go around, minutes and then whole hours, passing in a few seconds.

  I sat down next to her. “Mom,” I said. “What’s wrong? Can you tell me?”

  “Why do the hands go this way?” she said.

  When it was clear I didn’t understand, she made the universal motion indicating clockwise. What she wanted me to explain was why the hands wouldn’t go in the opposite direction. Still anxious that I understand, she demonstrated by twisting the stem counterclockwise, grunting with the effort.

  “You’re going to break it,” I told her. “See, you’ve already bent the stem.”

  This didn’t interest her. The mystery she was trying to fathom ran much deeper than that.

  AMAZINGLY, EVERYTHING HAD gone off without a hitch. The movers had arrived in Winslow when they were supposed to and immediately went to work. I fully expected my mother to renege on our agreement and demand to stay behind and ramrod the whole job, but instead she got in the car with Barbara and off they went to Camden, leaving me to inventory her possessions as they were carried out the door. “This lady moves a lot,” one of the men remarked. He had her dinette upside down on the floor (which, had my mother
been there, would have elicited cries of Oooh! Oooh! You’re scratching it!) and was unscrewing its legs. The table’s underside sported several stickers in different colors applied from previous moves.

  At one point Dot stopped by, and I learned they hadn’t gone out to dinner after all, that my mother had phoned to say she was too tired. “I’ve never seen anybody so worked up,” Dot said.

  “It’s like this with every move,” I told her.

  “I don’t know if it’s the move or the idea of a new doctor,” Dot said.

  Which was true, of course. Changing doctors always weighed heavily on my mother, because she had a good dozen prescriptions that would need to be filled; high on her list of anxieties was whether the new drugstore and the new doctor communicated effectively, otherwise giving her the wrong meds or leaving her totally without. A new doctor also meant unwelcome questions, about her unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise and all manner of things she considered nobody else’s business. It had taken her a long time, but she’d managed to train her Waterville doctor to accept what she told him as true and to write the scripts she believed she needed, including, for the past few years, Paxil, about which I was beginning to hear disturbing stories. The new doctor might express misgivings about the efficacy of all this.

  “She says she’s exhausted from having so much to do,” Dot continued, “but when I ask her what I can help with, there doesn’t seem to be anything.”

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