Elsewhere by Richard Russo

  My mother’s favorite book.

  WORKING ON the Granta piece, I once again began dreaming about her. Not nightmares like before—no more carrying her through Kafkaesque dreamscapes, no more crazy, middle-of-the-night phone calls wanting to know when I was going to come fetch her home from Europe. In this round she and I are back in Gloversville, in my grandfather’s house. I’m not visiting; I live there, and in fact have never lived anywhere except on Helwig Street. I’m a younger man, but not a kid. I’m neither married nor a parent. My life as a teacher and later as a writer never happened.

  There’s something oddly sweet and comforting about all this, probably because, except for my grandfather, we’re all together again in a familiar and well-loved place. But it’s unsettling, too, since in these dreams the house is always in terrible decay, something my grandfather would never have allowed to happen. Gaping holes in the roof allow the weather to come in, and the walls have been invaded by rot. The porches slope, and the railings have detached from their posts. Sometimes all this is something we’re aware of, part of the dream’s dramatic structure and plot. More often, though, I alone discover it and then have to conceal this terrible knowledge from my mother and grandmother, because we have no money for repairs. Finally I have no choice but to take my mother up into the attic to show her the holes in the roof, then down into the cellar where a black lake has formed, and she shrieks with horror. She wants to know what we’re going to do. It’s the only home we’ve got.

  Though she invariably appears in them and has a dramatic role, I realize these dreams aren’t really about her at all. They’re about Gloversville, about a ruined house that in the slightly out-of-plumb language of dreams stands in for the town Vincent DeSantis believes can be saved and I do not. Their inspiration wasn’t my mother’s illness and death so much as my grandfather’s. The central drama is located in the years immediately after his passing, when my mother and my grandmother lived together and didn’t have enough money to keep the house in good repair. Not long afterward, once I’d brought her to southern Illinois to live near us, the house had to be sold. Later, after my grandmother’s death, when I visited my aunt and uncle and cousins, I always drove by 36 Helwig Street and saw all-too-evident signs of neglect—the peeling paint, the unmowed lawn—and felt at once the betrayed and the betrayer. One year the hazardously sloping back porches, up and down, had been amputated, and nobody had even bothered to paint over the scars. The back door I was in and out of a hundred times a day as a boy now opened into thin air, a four-foot drop to a rectangle of hard brown earth that the house’s new owner couldn’t be bothered to seed. After that I no longer had the heart, or maybe the stomach, to bear witness, so strong was my sense of personal failure. Now, more than a decade later, I couldn’t bear to return to Gloversville at all.

  Maybe these new Helwig Street dreams didn’t originate in my mother’s death, but that didn’t mean her powerfully ambivalent feelings about Fulton County weren’t their ultimate source. From my childhood, her hatred of Gloversville was like the North Star, the one you navigate by, because otherwise you’re lost, completely untethered. That was precisely what happened to her every single time she left. No sooner was she elsewhere—anywhere else—than her loathing morphed seamlessly into loss. Once she was free of it, the house on Helwig Street, the cage she was forever trying to escape, became the central object of her longing. She wasn’t well, of course, but I don’t think paradoxes of this sort are unknown to healthy people, and I don’t blame her for being unable to resolve it. After all, I haven’t been able to either.

  Rather than confront my own love-hate relationship with my hometown, I simply created other Gloversvilles in my imagination. Since they don’t exist outside my head, I’m free to love Mohawk and Empire Falls and Thomaston without inviting the sense of betrayal I felt when my mother and I returned from Martha’s Vineyard and I made the mistake of telling her I was glad to be home, an innocent remark that for all I know set in motion our foolhardy journey to Arizona years later, as well as everything else that was to follow. My fictional towns never trailed real-world consequences. Better yet, there’s no question of going back because, like the “me” of the new Helwig Street dreams, I never left. I click the heels of my ruby slippers and there I am with Sully and Miss Beryl and Sam Hall and Mather Grouse. Tessa and Big Lou Lynch are right around the corner, as are Miles Roby and his daughter, Tick. Ikey Lubin’s corner store is nearby, and a few blocks farther along, on lower Main Street, there’s Hattie’s Lunch. They’re not Mayberry, my stand-in Gloversvilles. Bad things happen there. Out behind the old Bijou, Three Mock, a black boy, gets beaten half to death for sitting next to a white girl in the theater; young, horrifically abused John Voss furnishes his wardrobe out of the Dumpster behind the Empire Grill and plots revenge; and on the outskirts of town another unfortunate boy hangs impaled atop a fence, an iron spike protruding from his open mouth like a black tongue. And the toxic stream, running blue one day, red the next, always meanders through town, touching everyone, linking everyone, poisoning everyone.

  My fictional hometowns are no better or worse than the real one. They’re just mine, mostly because I’m free to see them with my own eyes, whereas the real Gloversville (as I’m coming to understand, thanks to Vincent DeSantis’s book) I still see with my mother’s. The paralyzing anxiety I feel at the thought of returning home is her legacy. She always maintained that her one claim to fame was getting me out of there, away from the shambling, self-satisfied, uncouth, monumentally stupid people who believed they were lucky to live where they did, lucky to have low-paying jobs in the skin mills that starved them and chopped off their fingers and gave them cancer before moving shop to the Third World. When I listen to my cousin’s stories about men diagnosed and maimed and poisoned and killed, part of what I feel is grim satisfaction that so little has in fact changed since he and I were boys. We share a profound sense of moral outrage that Mr. DeSantis has somehow escaped, but Greg, because he’s not only lived his whole life in the real Gloversville but also raised a fine family there, has resolved the paradox that eluded my mother and still eludes me. Gloversville is his home. It breaks his heart on a daily basis, but that doesn’t change the fact. His father’s buried in the cemetery there, along with both his paternal and maternal grandparents, their lives and deaths tied, directly or indirectly, to the skin mills. If there were a magic wand that could make the place all better, he’d wave it until his arm fell off, and that, I suspect, is the biggest difference between us. The shameful truth is that part of me doesn’t want Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again. I readily admit that’s neither fair nor just. Though I can’t justify doing so, it appears that on this topic I’ve taken my mother’s part. Gloversville got what it deserved. So what if this opinion isn’t really even mine? So what if it’s contradicted by all my novels? It’s still the oldest opinion I know. Surrender that one, and it would be like she was never here.

  IT WILL PROBABLY COME as no surprise that the apartment my wife and I eventually settled on in Boston is located in the old Leather District. Just about every building there sports a plaque identifying the business that originally was plied there. We’re on the seventh floor of an eight-story building, high and dry, as the saying goes, which I think would have made my grandfather smile. Leather was always a vertical industry. It went from low and wet in the beam house to high and dry in the sewing and cutting rooms, where the work was slightly better paid and less hazardous. As a small boy I remember standing on the sidewalk below and sighting along my mother’s index finger up to the top floor of the glove shop where my grandfather worked and sensing her pride in him. Perhaps I understood the principle of verticality even then.

  Though I’m sure he was grateful not to work in the beam house, I doubt my grandfather really thought of himself as privileged. His pay was never commensurate with his craft. The efficient new machines, together with the relentless drumbeat of piecework and the ever-shorter work season, ensured that h
e’d die poor. And he surely knew the work, even on the top floors, was far from safe. Sure, the tanned skins were dry by the time they got up there, but they were also full of hide dust that, breathed over a lifetime, could kill you. For years he didn’t worry about his shortness of breath. He’d come home from the Pacific with malaria, and maybe that explained it. But by the time he bought the house on Helwig Street he must’ve known his luck had run out. A decade later, when it was no longer possible to ignore his worsening symptoms, he was finally diagnosed with emphysema by doctors who had little doubt that his occupation was a contributing factor. But he was also an occasional smoker, and he never stopped, not entirely, even when he knew that each new cigarette reduced the time he had left. Even if he thought he could win, I doubt he would’ve sued his employers because, as he would’ve been the first to point out, the glove shops had put bread on his family’s table for all those years, and without them what would he have done? How would he have made a living otherwise? Bitterness and recrimination weren’t worth the little breath he still had. In his way my grandfather was a philosopher, and he would’ve wanted me to be suspicious of any bitterness I harbored on his behalf, just as he would’ve reminded me of the terrible possibility that what nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals that life away from us.

  I sometimes wonder what he would have made of the fact that the house and town my mother and I fled back in 1967 would nourish my creative life for more than three decades. I have no idea what he’d make of my reflex anxiety at the thought of ever returning home. The part of me that’s rational knows perfectly well that I have nothing to fear there. I’m often reminded that many people in Gloversville have embraced my stories and think of me as a favored son. There’s no reason that the mere thought of returning should make a frightened boy of me, a boy who, as the Helwig Street dreams suggest, will be overwhelmed by adult responsibilities he’s helpless to meet. I loved that house and everyone in it. I still do. Just how much was revealed one night not long after we closed on the Boston apartment. Barbara was away, and after dinner I found myself navigating through the unfamiliar television channels, stopping on one called American Life. It was playing an episode of 77 Sunset Strip, which was followed by Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6, all shows we watched when I was a boy. At some point I became aware of the tears streaming down my face, realizing that I wasn’t in Boston anymore, not really, but rather back home, stretched out on my grandparents’ living room floor, with a pillow wadded up under my chin and—I have to say—happy.

  But I don’t want to be a boy again, not ever.

  I wonder, too, what my grandfather would’ve thought about my mother’s life had he been able to see it all the way to the end. Would he have blamed himself as a father, as I’ve sometimes blamed myself as a son? I have little desire to speculate on what his specific regrets might have been, but he wouldn’t have let himself off easy, which maybe is why I can’t. My own regrets, as these pages attest, are full and sufficient. It’s worth saying, I think, that my own feelings of guilt and remorse have little to do with my failure to comprehend what was medically wrong with my mother, if indeed I understand it now. After all, it’s only recently that OCD has been recognized for what it is, much less treated effectively. What distresses me most is that I made an exception for my mother in how I normally go about things. For almost as long as I can remember, my personal mantra has been: When you don’t know what to do, try something; if that doesn’t work, try something else. Perhaps I came to this philosophy as a natural consequence of living with an obsessive. One thing obsessives have in common is they seldom try something else. By nature ritualistic, they try the same thing over and over, always hoping against hope that this time the results will be different, possibly even good. Their cycles have to be interrupted or they’re doomed. Perhaps because my mother’s were so clearly established when I was a boy and I’d been drawn into them so early, I never had much faith that they could be altered. To me they seemed like the tides: necessary, inevitable, much more powerful than I.

  I now know that I should have tried something else. Not as a boy, of course, but later as a man. Because even if I couldn’t comprehend what I was dealing with, I was not ill equipped to at least try something and, if that didn’t work, to try something else. For the last two decades of my mother’s life, I was a working novelist, and novelists, if they know anything, should know how important stories are, that narratives often provide the key to things that run deeper in us, in our basic humanity, than can be diagnosed by even the most skilled physician. Given how often I’d heard it, I should have recognized the importance and meaning of my mother’s Easter story, the one where she and her sister got new dresses and my grandmother did not.

  One of the heartbreaking ironies of OCD is that the myriad anxieties of those afflicted invariably have a common denominator if not a single source. A person terrified of being abandoned and ending up alone will inevitably develop a series of obsessions and rituals that virtually guarantee this precise result. What my mother, a child of the Great Depression, dreaded most was poverty, a fear rooted in her not-at-all-insane conviction that in America, poor people might make the nation’s clothes, build its highways and bridges, and win its wars, but in the end they don’t matter. Her need to be free and live independently was real, but that wasn’t the point. What independence meant to her was that she wouldn’t be poor like her parents were, like the people she grew up around had always been, like the nation itself was during her formative years. What must have terrified her after I came along and her marriage to my father failed was the possibility that no matter how hard she tried, she’d always come up a little short. That fear wafted across Helwig Street from the house where the poorest family on the block lived. To her, fear smelled like the olive oil they cooked with because—or so she imagined—they couldn’t afford butter.

  Poverty. That was the odor that turned her stomach and made her sick with yellow panic and suggested that “things … you know … won’t turn out right,” a thought that scared her worse than death itself. Had I understood this in time, had my moral imagination—any writer’s most valuable gift, perhaps everyone’s—not failed me, I could at least have …

  Could have what? The story ends here because I don’t know how to complete that sentence. My family assures me I did everything that could’ve been done, and I don’t know why it should seem so important that I resist the very conclusion that would let me off the hook. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of grim, scientific determinism, or perhaps it’s a writer’s nature (or at least mine) to gnaw and worry and bury and unearth anything that resists comprehension. But who knows? Maybe it’s just hubris, a stubborn insistence that if we keep trying one thing after another, we can coerce the ineffable into finally expressing itself. How tantalizingly close it seems even now, right there on the tip of my tongue before slipping away. But no doubt I’m misjudging the distance, being my mother’s son.


  No memoirist likes to admit to a poor memory, but that, alas, is what I’m saddled with. For this reason I’m particularly grateful to my wife and daughters for correcting me on details I got wrong or out of sequence. I’m also deeply indebted to my aunt Phyllis Gottung, who set me straight about some events from the early years. She fiercely loved and was loyal to her big sister, and if she’d known at the time to what use I meant to put our conversations about my mother’s life and struggles, she might not have been so forthcoming. At the beginning, of course, I myself didn’t know where my curiosity was leading. I’m also much indebted to my cousins, Greg and Jim Gottung, for all the Gloversville skin-mill stories they shared with me over the years. Whatever I managed to get wrong despite the best efforts of my family is my fault, not theirs.

  Despite my initial treatment of it, I’m also grateful to Judge Vincent DeSantis for sending me his book about Gloversville. I suspect we each love our hometown, if for very different reasons. And spec
ial thanks to John Freeman at Granta for nudging me at just the right moment.

  To my mother I owe, well, just about everything, and to some readers these pages may seem like a strange way to repay such an enormous debt. All I can say is, this isn’t a story I tried to remember; it’s one I’d have given a good deal to forget. But despite my impressive amnesiac gifts, it refused to be forgotten, and I hope that that’s because it’s true in the ways that matter most.



  The Risk Pool

  Nobody’s Fool

  Straight Man

  Empire Falls

  The Whore’s Child

  Bridge of Sighs

  That Old Cape Magic


  Other titles available in eBook format by Richard Russo:

  Bridge of Sighs · 978-0-307-26790-0

  Empire Falls · 978-0-307-80988-9

  Mohawk · 978-0-307-80984-1

  Nobody’s Fool · 978-0-307-80992-6

  The Risk Pool · 978-0-307-80993-3

  Straight Man · 978-0-307-80994-0

  That Old Cape Magic · 978-0-307-27330-7

  The Whore’s Child · 978-0-307-42962-9

  For more information, please visit www.aaknopf.com



  Richard Russo, Elsewhere

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]