Elsewhere by Richard Russo

  In the dream she wasn’t dying, just weak and fatigued as we soldiered on through the darkening streets, looking for signs or landmarks where there weren’t any. Finally, she was unable to go on, and I had to carry her. Initially, this wasn’t a problem. My mother had always been petite, and now she was frail, while I was strong from tennis and running. But gradually I began to feel her exhaustion, as well as her frustration with me for landing us in this predicament. There were just the two of us in empty streets that stretched on forever, with no option but to slog ahead.

  That was the dream. My mother and I going on and on, forever and ever, until finally I awoke to the old knowledge that she’d been dead since the summer, that in reality the burden of her long illness and longer unhappiness had at last been lifted from her shoulders. And from my own.

  Some dreams require no interpretation, and this was one of them.

  FROM THE TIME I was a boy, my mother valued few things more than her perceived independence. The legal separation she’d negotiated with my father stipulated that he contribute to my maintenance, though he seldom did. For a while she tried to compel him but quickly gave up, probably figuring that in the long run she was better off. Even if he wasn’t helping out, at least she wasn’t saddled with his gambling debts. She paid rent to my grandparents—at market price, she always proudly claimed—for our flat in their house on Helwig Street. Her job at GE in Schenectady paid well; before taxes she made just over a hundred dollars a week, more than many of the men who worked in the skin mills. Most women in Gloversville who worked were sewing gloves in the shops or at home, underpaid piecework that complemented the earnings of husbands who got laid off every winter and whose wages otherwise were kept artificially low through the collusion of the mill owners and the local government they held sway over. She was much better off working for a big company in Schenectady, though there were attendant expenses. For one thing she was a professional woman and had to dress like one. That suited her fine, because she loved nice clothes, but of course they weren’t cheap. Also, because she got home from work too late and too exhausted to cook, she had to pay my grandparents for my board. Then there was the cost of her ride to and from GE with coworkers; when we went places with my aunt and uncle and cousins, she always made a point of chipping in for gas.

  She ferociously defended her hard-earned independence against all comers, even (and especially) my grandparents, who were in many respects its true source. In particular she didn’t appreciate unsolicited advice about my upbringing, and when they crossed that line she reminded them that theirs was primarily a financial arrangement. She paid her rent, promptly, the first of each month, which to her way of thinking meant they had no more right to intrude into our lives than any other landlord. If her parents were ever angered or hurt by the curtness of this, they never said so, at least not in front of me, but who could have blamed them? After all, my grandfather had bought the house, at least in part, so my mother and I would have someplace to live. To my knowledge they never reminded her of this, and she clearly saw it differently. She let it be known there were lots of places for rent in both Gloversville and Schenectady, and if her parents couldn’t mind their own business, she’d move into one and take me with her. I don’t doubt my mother’s threat was sincere—when angry she was always sincere—but there wasn’t much danger of her following through, and my grandparents must have known that, too. “Jean,” one of them would say when she got on her high horse, and I’d think that this time they were going to have it out with her for sure, but then they’d look at me and let their voices fall.

  Gradually I came to understand that my mother’s seeming ingratitude was simply self-preservation. Her view of herself as a woman who could get things done on her own required constant tending and bolstering. She had to assert her independence, to say the words out loud, at every opportunity, if she herself was to believe it. She had to remind herself constantly that she had a good job at a great company in a real city. Not just a job, but a better, more responsible position than just about any other woman in Gloversville. She not only paid her own way in the world but also fed, clothed, and raised me. Moreover, she was broadening my horizons beyond the smug, complacent, self-satisfied, dimwitted ethos of the ugly little mill town we lived in. Tired as she was at the end of her long day, she made sure I’d finished my homework and done it well. If I brought home a form, she filled it out, never needing to be reminded, and if a check was to be attached for the rental of a uniform or a musical instrument, somehow she managed. I had clean, crisply ironed clothing to wear every day, even if it meant she had to stay up until midnight doing laundry. She would skip dinners to meet with my teachers to make sure I wasn’t just learning in school but flourishing, that I wasn’t being dismissed as an irrelevant, fatherless boy. These were real accomplishments. No other woman my mother knew struggled under such burdens or challenges, and she was doing it, she told herself, all by herself.

  Except she wasn’t, not really, and sometimes that terrible truth would punch through the defenses she’d erected and fortified at such a high personal cost. To her credit, she almost never shared her doubts, her temporary losses of faith, with me, her principal audience. She kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact. We, the two of us, were all we needed. As long as we had each other, we’d be fine. For my part I never let on that I suspected the truth: that, yes, she had a good job, but that as a woman she was still paid less than men with the same duties. They had families to support, she was told, as if she didn’t. By the time she paid for her ride to and from work and the clothes she needed to look the part there, she could have done almost as well working in Gloversville. Yes, she paid her rent faithfully, but at Gloversville, not Schenectady, prices, and my grandparents, though they never said so, could have charged anybody else more. And what would it have cost if she’d had to pay someone to look after me while she worked, a job my grandmother did, lovingly, for free?

  Even so, most of the time she was able to make ends meet, and our lives proceeded smoothly enough to maintain the necessary façade of independence. Every month my mother budgeted our expenses to the last penny, which meant that our cash flow was a frayed shoestring that occasionally snapped. Any surprise could push us into the red, and then she’d have to borrow from her parents, the very people she was forever claiming our independence from. Sometimes I grew too fast and needed new clothes sooner than she’d projected, or I’d tear a hole in a brand-new pair of pants climbing over the neighbors’ fences on the way to school. Other times I’d want things. Big things. One Christmas my cousins got a Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, and she had to explain why we couldn’t have one, how expensive it was, how long she’d have to work to pay for it, how many other things we needed more. And besides, I could use my cousins’ whenever I needed to. Though I was just a boy, I knew that she was holding things together, holding herself together, by sheer force of will, that the cold facts bore down on her relentlessly. She always paid back the small loans my grandparents floated us, but their necessity undermined the cherished myth of independence. Our well-being, at least on occasion, was being subsidized. Not that any of this was her fault. My mother seldom mentioned my father, but in crisis she’d sometimes lament that the money we were short was exactly the sum he refused to pay.

  Indeed, my father was a tricky subject. They’d separated not long after we moved to Helwig Street, and what little I knew about him was so contradictory I couldn’t make sense of it. On the one hand he was a war hero. I knew what D-day was and that my father was there, at Utah Beach, and had fought his way through France and Germany all the way to Berlin. I knew he’d won a Bronze Star. My mother never minimized any of this. She said I should be proud of what he’d done in the war. But now he was a gambler, a man who couldn’t be trusted to bring home his paycheck. He was the reason we sometimes got angry phone calls in the middle of the night. I wasn’t to think badly of my father, though. His gambling was a sickness, and he couldn’t help himself
. He was trying to stop, but so far he couldn’t.

  What I knew about him paled by comparison to what I didn’t. For instance, where did he live? I knew he was still in Gloversville because my mother said so, and my grandparents and my aunt Phyllis confirmed it. I associated him with the pool hall so strongly that for a while I imagined him living above it. When I asked my mother where he lived and who with, she said there was no telling. He wasn’t like us. We lived in the same place and with the same people all the time. My father could be anywhere, with anybody. I assumed this must be tied somehow to his gambling. If there were always people looking for him, wanting their money back, then not having a regular address or a consistent group of friends meant he’d be harder to find. Still, it was difficult to square all this with his being a war hero. I wondered if one or the other might be a lie.

  Of all the known facts about him, the one that was most significant to my mother was this: if he’d paid his due, his fair share, we’d be sitting pretty. That bitter logic seemed a comfort to her, as did the fact that she seldom needed help from him or anyone, and never needed much. She was making things work, almost.

  HALF A CENTURY LATER, prior to her final illness, she was in much the same boat. In her eighties by then, she was living in Camden, Maine, a few short blocks from our house. When people asked if this Megunticook House was an assisted-living facility, she always replied, “Oh, no. I live independently.”

  Though she hasn’t a mean-spirited bone in her body, this characterization always made my wife swallow hard. “What do you suppose she means when she says that?” Doing my best Wallace Shawn, I’d reply, “Inconceivable.” The Princess Bride was one of our daughters’ favorite movies growing up, and in it André the Giant says, referring to Shawn’s character, “He uses that word a lot. I don’t think it means what he thinks it does.” Which was precisely my wife’s point about my mother’s claim of independence. After all, for the last thirty-five years we’d joked that we never went anywhere for longer than it took for her milk to spoil. Part of what my mother meant, of course, was that she wasn’t living with us, in our house, but she also was proud that, for a woman her age, she was still spry and active. She took care of herself: made her grocery list and filled her basket only with what was on it; kept her own checkbook, paid her bills, and ordered clothes from catalogs over the phone, there being no place for an elderly woman who didn’t want to look frumpy to shop along our stretch of the Maine coast. In fact, she had briefly tried assisted living but hated every minute of it—the phony cheer of group activities, the dining room’s mushy, overcooked food and overheated conversation, the periodic, obligatory inspections of her apartment (her apartment!) to make sure she wasn’t creating, as even she had to admit some of the other ladies did, some kind of fire hazard. My mother wanted none of that, and she was especially disdainful of the facility’s other services: transportation to the grocery store (“My son does that”), to the doctor (ditto), the dentist (ditto again), and the hairdresser (and again). She didn’t require a scooter and didn’t need to hang on to anyone’s arm or on to the ugly ubiquitous railings bolted to the corridor walls. She certainly didn’t need to be wheeled anywhere. Despite chronic lower-back problems, she still cleaned her own bathtub and did her own ironing. Nor did she want me paying for it. We never showed her the bills, but she somehow found out that it cost about the same as a year’s college tuition, and that was that.

  So when she said she lived independently, she also meant—and this was another point of pride—that she received little financial help from us. And she had good reason to be proud. Having never in her life been well paid, her monthly Social Security check was meager in the extreme; and having divorced my father, she could lay no claim to his veteran’s pension. She had no inheritance beyond her mother’s Depression-era ability to stretch a budget, which owed much to a stubborn willingness to do without a lot of what other people considered necessities. She qualified for rent and heat assistance from the state, as well as food stamps, though she was too vain to accept these. Okay, there was a shortfall most months, just as there’d often been on Helwig Street, a shortfall that I, like any decent son who had the wherewithal, was happy to make up. And of course there was the occasional emergency. That said, the only times she and I ever argued about money was when I tried to give her more than she asked for, hoping to make her life a little easier. But she didn’t need any more than I was giving her, she insisted. She took great pride, she explained, just as she had always done, in taking care of herself.

  In the end, of course, after her health began to seriously fail and her needs grew exponentially, month to month, she’d take my hand and say, “What would I do without you?” I tried to reassure her by saying, “That’s what I’m here for,” and reminding her that, unlike far too many writers, I made an excellent living. To which she’d reply that, yes, of course she knew. She guessed it was still pretty much like the old days on Helwig Street. As long as we had each other, things would be fine. But then, anxious, she’d look around her apartment, at her increasingly constricting world, and say, “But if anything ever happened to you, I’d have to say good-bye to my independence.”

  AS A YOUNGER WOMAN my mother didn’t see her inability to drive as inconsistent with her desire to be, and to be seen as, a bold and independent woman. Gloversville was a walkable town with small markets on every other corner, and in the postwar years lots of people still viewed cars as extravagances, though that was rapidly changing. My grandparents didn’t own one, and neither did other people in the neighborhood. But there was also the gender issue. My aunt and uncle had a car, but she didn’t drive, and of course my grandmother didn’t either, though as married women independence wasn’t a hook they were hanging their hats on. Driving was something men did. The fact that after separating from my father my mother didn’t have a man anymore was to her irrelevant. All over America, men returning from the war were moving with their families into the suburbs, where their wives discovered they had to learn to drive or be trapped in their dream houses, but in Gloversville there was no such necessity. More to the point, my mother possessed another skill that was even more valuable than the ability to drive a car, and that was her ability to convince other people to take us where we needed to go.

  That’s how it had been when we visited Martha’s Vineyard when I was ten, perhaps the most astonishing and luxurious occasion of my childhood. My mother thought the resort she’d chosen provided everything we’d need—food, drink, plenty of activities for a boy my age, even a small private beach of its own. But the beach was on the sound, where the water lapped gently against the shore, and my mother could see my crushing disappointment that first day. I’d been imagining huge waves that would toss me ass-over-teakettle in the surf. Whereas this would be like swimming in nearby Caroga Lake—the kiddie pool when I was desperate for the deep end. Though we’d already investigated the matter thoroughly at the front desk, that night my mother inquired, in a voice loud enough for people at adjacent tables to hear, what our waitress could tell us about public transportation to the other side of the island, where some real waves might be waiting for me. “Really?” she said, mock incredulous, when informed that there were neither buses nor trolleys. “None?” Next she inquired about taxis and was told that, yes, there were taxis, but to have one come all the way out-island from Vineyard Haven or Edgartown would be expensive, and then of course we’d have to prearrange for another to pick us up and bring us back to the resort. Bicycles, then? Yes, the resort did have bicycles we were welcome to use, but the nearest public surf beach was several miles away, and we’d be loaded down with beach stuff. Each revelation elicited in my mother an even deeper incredulity. “But what do people do?” she asked, the picture of innocence. Well, people who stayed out here generally brought their cars over on the ferry. “Oh,” she said, crestfallen. “I wish we’d known.” As if we owned a car.

  It was at this point that a couple seated nearby introduced themselves and offered
to take us to a surf beach the next day, just as my mother had been hoping all along. I could tell she’d been prepared to keep the uncomfortable conversation with the waitress going as long as need be, until someone came to our aid, but now someone had. “Of course we’ll pay you,” she told the couple. We wouldn’t dream of imposing, and we weren’t the kind of people who expected favors from complete strangers. But they said no, that was okay, they were going anyway. Before long, once it was common knowledge that we were stranded there, offers of assistance began to pour in. One rainy afternoon we were taken into Edgartown for shopping and a break from the resort’s dining room, and midweek we rode along with a family to a makeshift theater in Chilmark, where an old western was projected onto a plain white wall by a projector that chewed up chunks of film, causing not just delays but gaps in the narrative, the last occurring in the final reel where, after the film was spliced, half the cast lay wounded or dead in the dirt at the O.K. Corral. By the end of the week we’d become the shared responsibility of the resort’s other guests, who must have been thrilled to see us leave. “Weren’t people nice there?” my mother said dreamily when we were back on the ferry, watching the island recede behind us like an illusion. “And punctual,” she added, because everybody who promised to take us somewhere not only did so but even showed up at the agreed-upon time. “Some different, huh?”

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