Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  I kept expecting my mother to throw in the towel. As soon as she did, I was prepared to pack it in and return home. I’d find a job and put off college until the following year. Or maybe I’d contact my father. You never could tell with him. Sometimes he’d just happen to have what you needed, and if he had the money he’d buy me a plane ticket to Arizona or help get me on a road-construction crew if he didn’t. But my mother knew me as well as I knew her, so she had to know what was going through my brain, and the closest she ever came to calling it quits was to remark, at the end of one of those long, hot, dusty, scarifying days, “Ah, Ricko-Mio. When are we going to catch a break?” As if our problem were bad luck.

  Not long after, though, our luck did change, in the Ozarks of all places, where a gas station attendant with the smallest head I’d ever seen on an adult sold us a brown canvas water bag shaped like a pancreas that he swore would solve our radiator problem. As near as I could tell from his toothless explanation, offered up as he attached the thing to the Galaxie’s bug-splattered grille, the hot outside air would be cooled as it passed through the bag, the cooler air then blowing directly onto the radiator. I had my doubts, but the gadget seemed to reassure my mother, who now had only entrance and exit ramps, reverse gear, wrong turns, and running out of money before we got to Arizona to worry about. First thing each morning, and every time we stopped for gas, I refilled the bag with cool water as quickly and unobtrusively as I could, hoping no one would ask what on earth I was doing and oblige me to repeat, this time with added consonants, the pump jockey’s rationale. But guess what? The car stopped overheating. Then, a couple days later in the Texas Panhandle, somebody actually stole the bag when we stopped for lunch. This was a blow to my mother, whose excellent opinion of people outside of Fulton County was being rubbed raw by actual experience of them, but the theft cheered me considerably, suggesting as it did that there were apparently other idiots in the world. They weren’t all in our car. Over the next several days, though, every time we stopped for gas in the parched southwestern desert, my mother inquired of the attendant whether they sold those great water bags, the ones you attached to the grille to keep car radiators cool. Even after she patiently described the bag’s size and shape and color, nobody seemed to know what she was talking about. Apparently you could buy them only in Missouri from congenital nitwits.

  MY MOTHER’S NEW JOB at the General Electric plant in Phoenix had always sounded a little vague to me. When I asked what she’d be doing there, if there’d be any correlation between her new duties and the work she’d done in the computer room in Schenectady, or how much of a pay cut she was taking, she said she’d find out all that when we arrived. The main thing, she added, was that the people were nice. Her new boss was somebody she knew, sort of, having talked with him on the phone, off and on, for years, and he was always saying how great it would be if she came out west. She spoke of him in the same tone of voice she used to describe the men she occasionally dated at GE, which might be why I never pressed her for details. Maybe they’d met in Schenectady. Maybe this was one of the guys who’d taken her out for lunch. I didn’t want to know, that’s for sure. Whatever her reasoning, she seemed confident that any salary or tenure she lost as a result of the move, she would quickly be able to make up. After all, the Schenectady plant was GE’s flagship, and in lowly Phoenix she’d surely be recognized as someone who knew how things were done in the big leagues. She just hoped she could start work immediately because, well, the trip had cost more than she’d planned, and she didn’t want to tap the emergency fund any more than she absolutely had to. Right around the corner there’d be first and last month’s rent on her new apartment, and when you went grocery shopping that first time it was always extra expensive because you needed to get everything: salt, pepper, a two-pound bag of flour, wax paper, you name it. And she’d have to pay for her ride to work, just as she’d always done.

  Nor was it just money that was in short supply. Time was also of our particular essence. In a couple weeks I’d be heading to Tucson to register for my fall semester classes and check into my dorm. My mother was a list maker, and the to-do items on the list she’d started back in Gloversville and updated periodically during our journey—find an apartment she could afford, move in, return the U-Haul and collect the deposit, open a bank account, set up phone and utilities, locate a grocery store within walking distance, find a new doctor—all had to be checked off before I headed south in the car.

  As my mother obsessed about all these tasks, I became increasingly apprehensive, not so much because the list was long and time was short, but because she herself seemed so keyed up. After all, our harrowing journey was behind us. Against all odds—we didn’t even know enough to calculate them when we left Helwig Street—we’d somehow made it. The Gray Death hadn’t killed us, and neither, miraculously, had I. We’d done the hard part, hadn’t we? Once we got close to Phoenix, my mother had contacted our relatives, and they’d offered to let us stay with them for a few days until we settled in, and they proved a wealth of information about the area. Sure, there was a lot left to do, but unlike the journey itself none of it was likely to kill us. So, why was my mother behaving as if the tough part was only now beginning? The reason was that she hadn’t written down on any list the most important thing she had to do: Find A Job.

  In fairness, some part of her thought she had one. Not in the sense that an actual job had been offered and she’d accepted it, or that there’d been any discussion of things like salary or hours or a start date, and certainly not in the sense that there were any supporting documents. More like, If you’re ever out this way, look us up. Or, We could sure use somebody like you out here. Her having a job there was essentially a reasonable conjecture, a deduction based on available data. Telling my grandparents that she had a job in Arizona wasn’t a lie, exactly. It wasn’t that she didn’t have a job, only that she didn’t have one yet. A matter of semantics, surely. She was confident about both her marketable skills and her considerable experience, and that when she presented herself to the man with whom she’d chatted so pleasantly on the phone, he’d recognize her value and find something for her. Having spent his entire working life in Gloversville’s skin mills, my grandfather couldn’t be expected to understand how things worked out in the wider world, in a big company like General Electric. GE people looked out for one another.

  But mostly I think my mother believed she had that job in Phoenix because she needed it so badly. Because if she didn’t have it, then doing what we’d just done was beyond folly. Because without a job waiting for her out west, when I went off to college she’d be left behind on Helwig Street. Because she was in her mid-forties now and still an attractive woman, but for how much longer? And more to the point, how long was any person with hopes and dreams expected to remain in a cage, without hope, without a life to call her own? She had the job in Phoenix because without it she was finished. Because for my sake she’d stuck it out in Gloversville as long as she could, and she couldn’t stand it a moment longer. She just couldn’t. And so she had a job.

  THE GE FACILITY WAS located on the other side of Phoenix, even then, in 1967, an obscenity of urban sprawl. It was more of an outpost than anything, and I could see my mother’s face fall when she saw how small it was, about the size of an automobile dealership. She’d dressed with great care that morning, but it was already close to a hundred degrees out, and in the hour it had taken us to drive there her hair and clothes were limp. Even more discouraging were the people emerging from and entering the facility, the women dressed in slacks and casual tops and sneakers, the men in jeans and shirts with snaps instead of buttons. A few even wore cowboy hats. One of these pointed my mother to an office door into which she disappeared on her high heels. I found a shady spot, expecting to roast there awhile in the punishing heat, but less than five minutes later she returned. The man who’d encouraged her to come by if she was ever in the area hadn’t worked there for a year. In his place was a woman who infor
med my mother that not only were there no openings but also none were anticipated. Theirs was a very small operation, and almost everyone who worked there had done so forever. If she’d had such a good job in Schenectady, why did she leave it?

  For a few minutes we just sat in the car and let the blazing desert sun bake us. I saw my mother’s hands were shaking. I was about to ask what she meant to do now, when she said, “How can anyone even think in heat like this?”

  We went to an air-conditioned coffee shop and sat in a window booth, our wet clothes sticking to the vinyl cushions. Outside, the heat shimmered in waves off the pavement. Everything was singed brown, even the weeds pushing up through cracks in the sidewalks. “What an awful, awful place,” my mother remarked, more to herself than me. “All that way we came.”

  I was inclined to agree, but pointed out that we’d been in Phoenix less than twenty-four hours, perhaps not long enough to pass judgment.

  “I can tell you one thing,” she said, finally turning to face me, and there was something wild in her eyes, something so desperate it bordered on rabid. I’d seen it, or something like it, a few times before, usually when she was at wit’s end and instead of helping I, her only ally, did or said something to make things even worse. At such times it seemed to occur to her that maybe I’d been enlisted in the swelling ranks of those determined to thwart her. Who knew? Maybe I’d always been against her. “I can tell you one thing,” she repeated, challenging me to disagree. “I’m not going back.”

  EVENTUALLY SHE DID, of course, just as my grandparents had foretold, but by then a lot had happened, some of it predictable but mostly not, at least not by me. Sitting across from my mother in that Phoenix coffee shop, I couldn’t even have predicted the next two weeks, at the end of which she and I would once again put the Gray Death on the road, minus the U-Haul this time, for the relatively short trip down to Tucson, where over the next decade, I would complete both an undergraduate and several graduate degrees, and where I would meet a girl named Barbara whom I had the good sense to fall in love with and, once I’d overruled her better judgment, marry. In Tucson I would become a man, a husband, a scholar, a father, and a writer.

  In the summer of 1967, however, I was still a boy and my mother’s son, and the University of Arizona larger and more populous than my hometown. I wasn’t the boy who’d left Gloversville a month earlier, though. Nor, I think, was my mother the same woman. We’d become seasoned, fearless travelers and found first the U of A and then the dorm to which I’d been assigned (Apache Hall, I still remember), without difficulty or incident. There I met my roommate, an Arizonan who’d grown up in a small, godforsaken mining town he seemed proud of as only a small-town boy can be. To me, it sounded like the local equivalent of an upstate New York mill town. My mother garrulously told him all about where we were from, and from her description you never would’ve guessed that for her Gloversville held anything but the fondest of memories. Later, the kid told me he thought she was cool. In fact, motherwise, I’d lucked out. Definitely. He’d have continued in this vein, I suspect, if I hadn’t cut him off.

  We were broke, of course, so that night my mother and I ate dinner at a chain coffee shop near the interstate, a dead ringer for the one in Phoenix we’d retreated to after she learned she wouldn’t be working for GE anymore. There was a pay phone outside, so we called my grandparents to let them know that this final leg of our journey had been successfully completed and I was registered for all my classes, which would begin next week. I gave them the number of the phone at the end of the hall in my dorm so they could reach me if they needed to. And of course they had my mother’s new number in Phoenix. “How good they were to us,” she said over dinner, and I understood from this that she’d begun the process of forgetting those last terrible weeks on Helwig Street. Hearing my grandfather struggle for breath on the telephone brought home to her not just how much she loved him but how much she’d depended on him, and her remark about how good they’d been to us was really about the whole of the last eighteen years. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without them,” she said, as close as she’d ever come to admitting that we hadn’t been wholly self-sufficient living under their roof and how secretly worried she was about losing the safety net they’d provided. “He was always my rock,” she continued, her eyes brimming, “from the time I was a little girl,” letting her voice fall, but not completely. “You’re that rock now.”

  If it had occurred to me that she actually meant this, I’d have protested, because I didn’t feel like anybody’s rock, including my own. I was also acutely aware that for the last eighteen years the only rock I’d been was the one around her neck, threatening to pull her under. And if she was worried about the future, she had me for company. That afternoon I’d opened a checking account with a couple hundred dollars, money that would have to last me through the first semester, and in my pocket was a cafeteria meal ticket that would keep me from starving. I couldn’t think of a single thing I had that would be of the slightest use if my mother ran into trouble. My two suitcases were full of clothes that were stylish back home but would brand me as a hated easterner out here in the desert, where the frat-boy uniform was cowboy boots, button-down oxford shirts, and jeans with button flies. I’d have all I could do not to become a figure of fun. My numerous misgivings about coming this far to study in what amounted to a foreign country must have been obvious to my mother. She might even have suspected I’d have done a straight-up swap to be enrolling back at SUNY Albany, where I’d know people and could hop on a bus and be home in Gloversville in an hour. So when my mother said that I was now her rock I assumed she was just expressing some kindly sunrise-sunset, swiftly-flow-the-years sentiment meant to buck me up in the face of new challenges.

  She wasn’t.

  THE COFFEE-SHOP MELTDOWN in Phoenix turned out to be the nadir. Somehow my mother gathered herself, and we returned to Scottsdale, to the home of the people who were putting us up and in whose yard our detached U-Haul now sat, its ball hitch burrowing into their desert landscaping like an anteater’s snout. My mother found an excuse to go straight to bed, where she slept around the clock. Bright and early the next morning, though, we set about crossing items off her revised to-do list, at the top of which she’d now written JOB.

  The first major piece of the puzzle to fall into place was an apartment. Phoenix, a stunningly horizontal city, was even then deeply committed to both unplanned sprawl and the primacy of automobiles, policies that remain unquestioned to this day as far as I know. New apartment houses with acres of parking were springing up everywhere in an attempt to keep up with the influx of midwestern snowbirds. Their construction was shabby, but to easterners used to the grit and grime born of punishing winters they felt new and clean. Several complexes that were only half built offered a free month or two to anyone willing to sign a year’s lease, and that put pressure on older, established properties to cut similar deals. My mother picked a place on Indian School Road that was reasonably close to most of what she’d need, though of course nothing was walking distance, a moot point since there were no sidewalks. Perhaps because it was so hot and gas was nineteen cents a gallon, people preferred to get in their cars even when their destination was just a block or two away.

  She could’ve gotten by with a studio apartment, but my mother rented a one bedroom so I’d have at least a couch to crash on when I visited. She had to come up with the usual first and last month’s rent, but after that her next check wasn’t due until November, which seemed a long way off. To her surprise and delight, almost everybody in the complex was newly divorced and recently arrived from somewhere else, men seeming to outnumber women three to one. All of which made sense when you thought about it. In most divorces it would be the man who found himself without a roof over his head, and most of these guys wanted to put at least a few miles between themselves and the wives who’d told them to hit the bricks. Nobody seemed to have much money or to care much about it. There were a few flashy sports cars
in the parking lot, but just as many beaters. In the interior courtyard was a large swimming pool with a communal grill where people congregated in the evenings after changing into bathing suits and grabbing a cold beer. On Saturdays, around midday, somebody would appear on the pool deck with a pitcher of margaritas and give a rebel yell. People would then spill out of their apartments, blinking in the bright sun like prisoners released from their cells by an invisible warden. Then the weekend festivities would begin.

  It must’ve been pretty close to the kind of life my mother had been imagining back in Gloversville. She also must’ve felt like she’d arrived in the nick of time, because most of her neighbors were younger, in their thirties, but they welcomed her like the bunch of good-natured drunks they were. “New blood!” one bare-chested young fellow called up to us from the barbecue pit, his gleaming spatula raised in triumph, when we moved my mother’s stuff into her second-floor apartment within hours of signing the lease. “Where you from?”

  “Upstate New York,” my mother called over the railing. She hadn’t caught on yet that here in Arizona, hailing from back east was more likely to elicit derision than admiration.

  “Well, Jean,” he said, after they’d exchanged first names, “you’re better off here. How do you like your burgers?” When she told him, he said to come down when we finished lugging boxes, then pointed his greasy spatula at me. “Bring your husband with you.”

 
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