Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  At home we generally relied on my aunt and uncle to take us places, like the lake on weekends for picnics or special trips to Frontier Town or Fort Ticonderoga. Unlike the people who’d chauffeured us on Martha’s Vineyard, they showed up when it suited them. “Why tell us ten?” my mother would say, pacing like a tiger in my grandparents’ living room at 10:45, our beach stuff piled up outside on the front porch. “If you mean eleven, why not say eleven?”

  “I’m sure they meant ten,” my grandmother would say. “It’s just taking them a little longer.”

  My aunt, of course, had to rustle all my cousins, as well as prepare the food and together with my uncle load everything into the back of the big wood-trimmed station wagons he favored. Absolved of cooking because she worked all week, my mother usually contributed Cokes and chips, which worked out to her advantage, because she disapproved of the off-brand sodas and snacks my uncle would buy if left to his own miserly devices. The longer we waited, the worse it got, until my grandfather left the room, refusing to listen. “I swear to God,” she’d exclaim, “if we go to Green’s after all this, I’m going to scream.” Which beach we went to was always another bone of contention. My uncle preferred Green’s, which was closer to town and had dozens of picnic tables interspersed on the grassy field that ran down to within a few feet of the water. There was no quick drop-off, which meant that we kids could play safely. “At Green’s we ain’t got to watch ’em every damn minute, Jean,” he would explain when my mother complained about the little patch of sand that was always so wet you couldn’t even put a blanket down. “Lay your blanket on the grass like everybody else,” her brother-in-law told her. “Y’ain’t gotta have sand to lie down.”

  My mother maintained that indeed you did need sand for a real picnic, that it was no day at the beach without a beach, that if you wanted to lie on grass you could throw a blanket down on your own backyard. “So, do that next time,” my uncle, finally fed up, would tell her, winking at us kids and causing a fit of giggles. It was my aunt, I was pretty sure, who always insisted we be invited along. To her husband’s way of thinking, his family was going in his car to the beach of his choice, and my mother and I were simply hitching a ride. My mother’s logic was different. If you contributed gas money, you had certain rights, and hers were being violated every single Sunday. At the end of the day when we were dropped off on Helwig Street, she’d still be on the warpath. “Green’s again,” she’d tell my grandparents, clearly hoping they’d share her indignation. Instead they’d turn to me and ask if I had a good time, and I’d make the mistake of saying I had, because I loved Green’s and its great expanse of grass where you could play Wiffle ball or badminton with the other kids. Better yet, there was no lifeguard, so my uncle, whose specialty was horseplay, could toss my cousin Greg and me, squealing, high into the air, somersaulting into the warm lake. I knew I wasn’t supposed to like Green’s, but I could never contain my enthusiasm when I described what fun we’d had, and my mother, disgusted, would clomp up the back stairs to our flat, betrayed yet again by everyone from whom she deserved some sympathy. “Whoever said beggars can’t be choosers,” my grandfather would remark when she was out of earshot, “never met your mother.”

  I HAVE TO remind myself of how young she still was back then. Not long after her death, when we were going through her things, my wife and I came across a full-page photo of her in a glossy magazine published by GE. Actually, it’s a picture of their vaunted mainframe computer, but my mother’s standing in front of it, looking a bit like a Fifties version of a TV game-show hostess about to tell the contestants what they’ll win. Still in her thirties, she was slender and graceful, balanced expertly on high heels, her hair styled, her skirt flatteringly tailored. We showed the photo to Emily and Kate when they came home for the holidays. “Now that,” Kate said, showing it to her new husband, “is one stylish woman.”

  And she was. My mother took great pains and great pride in her appearance and the contrast she offered to the slatternly, dumpy women who did shift work in Gloversville sweatshops. They dressed in cheap slacks and garish, mismatched blouses pulled from tangles of clothing mounded in the huge bins of discount stores. For them my mother felt pity that sometimes manifested itself as condescension, though she at least gave such women points for getting out of the house. She saved her real contempt for “homemakers” like the ones so popular on TV, perky, vapid wives with dull, reliable husbands and not a worry in the world. Sometimes, when my grandmother attempted to “interfere,” she also got lumped into this reviled category, though God knows she was no stranger to money worries and would have looked for a job herself if she hadn’t been married to a man who would’ve considered this an indictment of his abilities as a provider. Back then my aunt was also a homemaker, but she was raising five kids, and even my mother had to give her a pass for not having a real job. Still, she thought her sister’s good fortune in having a hardworking husband who didn’t drink or gamble made her one of the world’s innocents, because she didn’t have to face things alone, the inescapable consequence of which, of course, was dependence. And when these women’s husbands brought home their paychecks and decided how the money would be spent, they had little choice but to accept their lot. They had nothing that the world needed, or nothing, at least, that it was willing to pay a living wage for. If you were a woman who’d never held a responsible job, if you didn’t bring home your own paycheck at the end of the week and deposit it into an account with your own name on it, you had no right to criticize or interfere in the lives of those who did. Indeed, you had no opinions worth listening to. In the GE photograph my mother looks both old-fashioned and modern, both of her time and oddly outside of it, a strange mix of stubborn confidence and acute anxiety.

  But there was another reason my mother took such ferocious pride in her personal appearance. Her marriage had failed, and having a kid in tow made things even more challenging, but she was still hopeful of finding romance. She’d always loved men and knew they found her not only attractive but likable as all get-out. She could tell a joke and take one, and she liked sports and had a good head for booze. She didn’t giggle demurely like girls who were stupid or pretending to be. She presented herself as a woman seeking a mate more than a husband, as a Nora Charles searching for her Nick, except instead of having a yippy little dog for a companion, she had me. There must surely have been times she’d have liked to trade me in for a dog, because I could be as nervous and demanding as Asta and far less faithful. Worse, if allowed, I was just as willing to steal a scene.

  Of course she had exactly zero interest in Gloversville men. The ones her own age she knew from high school, and there wasn’t a Nick Charles in the lot. More to her taste were the guys who passed through the computer room at GE, or the kind of men who’d stopped by our table on Martha’s Vineyard, men of the world who had manners and, even if they didn’t major in repartee like William Powell, at least knew enough to hold the door for a lady instead of barging right on through. Many of the “fellas” who interested her had been in the service, and she was at ease with them, having been a camp follower until my father shipped overseas. After the war they’d taken full advantage of the GI Bill, as her husband had not, and now they were starting to get ahead. They dressed well and drove T-Birds and Caddies. Some took her out for lunch in Schenectady; others who were stuck there over the weekend were willing to hop on the Thruway and drive to Gloversville on a Saturday night. At this point she was legally separated but not yet divorced, and dating was one of many sources of discord between her and my grandparents, who might have suspected, despite my mother’s protestations to the contrary, that some of her dates had wedding rings in their pockets. They thought she should think of me first, because Gloversville was a small town where people loved to gossip. Also, my father would cause a scene if he found out.

  Which he invariably did. It was like he had a mole in the house. My mother didn’t go out on dates all that often, but every time she did he’d telep
hone, wanting to know if this new guy understood she was a married woman. He’d ask where they were going to dinner. Maybe he’d stop by and buy them a drink. Introduce himself. Maybe he and this new guy would hit it off.

  “We’re separated,” my mother would remind him.

  “You’re still my wife,” he’d remind her back. “And I’m still our son’s father, too.”

  “What’s the matter? Forget his name?”

  Often I’d awake the morning after one of my mother’s dates vaguely aware that there’d been trouble in the night, shouting out in the street, maybe, or my mother calling downstairs, telling my grandparents that he was gone and for them to go back to sleep. Such confrontations were pretty rare, though, because they required focus and steadfast purpose on my father’s part, and he famously lacked both. He’d have liked nothing better than to ambush my mother and her date at the restaurant, but apparently whoever tipped him off that his wife was stepping out didn’t know where. There were no good restaurants in Gloversville itself, but too many in the surrounding area to stake out. Better to catch them later when the guy brought her home. Here this dumb bastard would be thinking maybe she’d invite him in, and instead—surprise!—there he’d be, waiting. Meanwhile, to pass the time, he’d find a card game. That was where things would invariably get away from him. He’d remember to check his watch at first, but then would get involved in the game and forget about it. Either the cards would be falling right at about the time my mother and her date would be returning, and he wouldn’t want to kill his luck by cashing out, or he’d be a couple hundred bucks down and unwilling to leave until he won at least some of it back. Nor did it fail to occur to him that if he left he’d have to sit in a borrowed car up the block from my grandparents’ house for who knew how long. What the hell, maybe he’d play one more hand and let the cards decide. If he won, he’d stay; if he lost, he’d drive over to Helwig Street and see what was what and what could be done about it. Except by then it would register that he’d probably waited too long: if she was already home, he’d be waiting in the dark, cold street for nothing. The next time he looked at his watch, when the game was breaking up, it was four in the morning, and the man who’d taken my mother out was back in Schenectady asleep in his hotel. My mother would be asleep, too, but sometimes he’d visit Helwig Street anyway before going home. There he’d stand beneath her bedroom window, hollering up to inquire if she’d had a good time.

  Such was my mother’s independence at age thirty. She was free, but couldn’t do as she pleased. Though she could go wherever she liked, she had no way of getting there. She had her own money, but it ran out before she could spend it on anything she really wanted. Men liked her—how she looked and danced and laughed—and under different circumstances she would’ve had no great difficulty finding someone. But the circumstances weren’t different; they were always the same. The men she liked were mostly passing through and often lost interest once they were introduced to me or to my tight-lipped grandparents or to Gloversville itself. Some of them probably came from places that were pretty similar, but after the war they were done with these backwater burgs.

  Even to my mother, her hard-won autonomy must at times have resembled a cage. Still, it was a cage of her own design, different from and superior to the one my father and her parents and Gloversville itself would have put her in if she’d allowed them to. In retrospect what astonishes me is the courage she must have summoned in order to imagine—by working in Schenectady, by having her own checking account, by going out on the occasional date—that she was outside the cage she so clearly was trapped in. She had to muster that tough imagining day after day, year after year, with all of life’s realities bearing down on her relentlessly, insinuating, as self-doubts always do, that the sensible thing would be to give up. And with no one to talk to about any of this but a boy.

  What kept her going? Stubbornness? Vanity? My mother did love mirrors, often practicing in front of them. But I came to understand that this vanity had its origins in fear and, counterintuitively, intense empathy. One of her favorite family stories was of a particular Easter during the Depression. My grandfather had somehow managed to scrape together enough money to buy her and her sister new outfits, and he made a great fuss about how beautiful they were, picking each of them up and twirling them in the air above his head, assuring them they’d be the prettiest girls at Easter Mass. When he finally set them down, he took his wife in his arms and said, “And you look beautiful, too,” though that spring there wasn’t enough money to buy her anything new. My mother was on morphine the last time she shared this story with me. It was clear that the memory still haunted her, in part, I suspect, because it effortlessly yielded two irreconcilable morals. I don’t think she ever doubted how much her father loved her mother, or that he thought she was beautiful, no matter how threadbare the dress she was wearing. Seen as a parable of love versus material goods, love wins hands-down. But I think to my mother the story also suggested, as it would to so many who’d weathered the Dirty Thirties, that in this world there’s never enough to go around. Love couldn’t stretch two new outfits into three, or fill three hungry bellies with food for two. If you depended on a man, even one who loved you, you could end up in church with people staring with pity at your moth-eaten clothes. And who knew? Maybe love followed the same laws, and there wasn’t enough of that to go around either.

  For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, I think my mother made up her mind never to be that woman without something pretty to wear. There was no character in literature or film with whom she identified more completely than Scarlett O’Hara (speaking of brave, ferocious, stubborn vanity), and her favorite scene in Gone With the Wind was when Scarlett, penniless and hungry, makes a gown out of Tara’s velvet drapes. In the last few months of my mother’s life, her Easter story seemed to morph on her, as if after so many tellings its true meaning was only now coming clear to her. She kept trying and failing to describe the exact expression on her mother’s face when her father told her that she, too, was beautiful. I wasn’t there, of course. I didn’t see it. But I knew my grandmother, and I know her expression would have contained both love and understanding. But having seen photographs of her as a young mother, I also know what those Depression years, so full of want and fear, had done to her handsome features. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if what my mother saw on her face was defeat.

  AND THERE WAS one more reason—this one less personal—my mother kept soldiering forward when reason dictated simply giving up: those were optimistic times. Like the men she occasionally dated, the postwar nation was thriving. Servicemen had returned triumphant, and when the partying stopped they parlayed their brand-new GI Bill degrees, their new skills, their hard-earned worldly experience and brimming confidence into houses in the suburbs and two-car garages. When JFK became president, it seemed to many, including my mother, that the country had turned a corner, that barriers excluding people like her were finally coming down. Opportunities seemed to be everywhere. To be left behind when everyone around you was getting ahead, she thought, you’d have to be stupid or lazy—or married to Jimmy Russo and living in Fulton County (which JFK had not carried). My mother wasn’t stupid, and she wasn’t lazy, and she’d separated from my father, so …

  So. “You,” she told me throughout high school, “are getting out of Gloversville.”

  I was a decent student, but uneven and undisciplined, far too interested in girls and having a good time to really excel. I got excited about all sorts of things, then invariably lost interest when I discovered they were difficult and there was no one to help guide me through their intricacies. My mother had told me for as long as I could remember that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I took this to mean, despite a complete lack of evidence, that I was gifted. While my teachers tried their best to offer a counterbalancing view, I was having none of it. Senior year, though, I did well enough on my Regents Exams to qualify for significant financial assistance to any college
in New York. But I’d also found out that the universities out west were much cheaper. If I lit out for the territories, the first year would be rough because I’d have to pay out-of-state tuition, but by the second I’d have established residency, and it would cost less to go to the University of Arizona without financial aid than to SUNY with a scholarship. I expected my mother to put up stiff resistance to this plan; after all, I’d be twenty-five hundred miles away and her mantra had always been that we were a team, that as long as we had each other, we’d be able to manage. So I should have been suspicious when she didn’t object to my heading west. But even if I’d twigged to the possibility that she was up to something, I never would’ve grasped the obvious inference, and it was years before it occurred to me that maybe the westward-ho notion hadn’t been mine at all, that she’d steadily been dropping hints—for example, that the best place to study archaeology, my current interest, was the Desert Southwest—and that I’d dutifully been lapping them up. Nor did she object when, in spring of my senior year, I announced I wanted to buy a car.

  The reason she didn’t, of course, was that we’d need one. Because she was coming with me.

  A Good Talking-To

  IN THE SPRING of 1967 I bought a big, hulking 1960 Ford Galaxie, the first car ever to sit at the curb of 36 Helwig Street. Everything about it—exterior, dashboard, vinyl upholstery—was a dull, battleship gray, so my friends immediately christened it the Gray Death. It’s hard to imagine the car had ever been shiny, even in the showroom, but there was no rust on it, which in upstate New York was remarkable. Still, cars didn’t get much more uncool, and to make matters worse the Death, with its small V-6 engine, was seriously underpowered. I would own worse cars, but never another in which you could slam the accelerator to the floor and nothing, absolutely nothing, would happen. You simply couldn’t express urgency to the fucking thing. Getting on the Thruway at Fultonville, you wouldn’t get up to the speed limit until Amsterdam, seven miles down the road.

 
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