Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  The next morning we dropped the trailer off at the nearest U-Haul facility where a HELP WANTED sign was taped to the cash register. “Not for here,” the man behind the counter said, as if he feared my mother had designs on his job. “At the headquarters.”

  These were again located all the way across town, so we drove directly there, my mother having learned her lesson about dressing up for job interviews, and when she disappeared inside I again found a shady spot where I could plan, with the aid of a map of Phoenix, the rest of our day. My mother wasn’t very good at sequencing the items on her to-do list. She always wanted to attend to things in the order of their importance, without taking geographical proximity and other natural progressions into account. I’d only just begun when she reappeared. “Where’s that list?” she said. When I handed it to her, she crossed out JOB. “No kidding?” I said. No kidding. She’d been hired on the spot as a bookkeeper. The pay was shitty, but Arizona was a virulently antiunion, right-to-work state where the idea of a living wage had yet to be introduced. There were lots and lots of crappy, low-paying jobs, however, and the possibility of rapid advancement. I think what really sold her on this one, though, was that it was located straight down Indian School Road, so that even with her lousy sense of direction she wouldn’t get lost. Turn right to go to work, turn left and return home. Easy as pie.

  That was the other complication, naturally. My car wasn’t mine anymore. “I wish there was some other way,” she’d said the morning after her coffee-shop meltdown. But of course I’d seen it coming. The people we’d been staying with had explained when my mother mentioned I’d be taking the car down to Tucson that people in Phoenix didn’t carpool. Or ride the bus, or take a train. If you needed to go anywhere, you climbed in your own car and you took off. If your wife needed to go somewhere, she got into her own car and she took off. You’d no more go two to a car than two to a horse. “But isn’t that kind of, well … stupid?” I remember asking. “Welcome to Arizona,” I was told.

  So, since I didn’t really need a car at the university anyway, we located the nearest branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles, got my mother a learner’s permit, and scheduled the written and driving exams for a week later. What we’d do if she failed either one we tried our best not to think about. With nothing but Camelback Mountain to go around and a few dry arroyos to go over, Phoenix wasn’t a bad place to learn to drive. It was laid out on a grid, and its streets were wide and flat. To us, every intersection looked like every other intersection, but you could see for long distances, so it was possible to use the few landmarks that stood out to orient yourself. There was the heat, of course. Since the Death had neither air-conditioning nor power steering, we waited until late in the day for her driving lessons. For the first few evenings we practiced on quiet, residential streets and abandoned strip-mall parking lots. My mother was not a gifted student, but in her defense it must’ve been hard to learn such a basic skill so late in life and to be taught by someone who, in the normal scheme of things, you’d be teaching. Nor was I the most patient instructor. The fact that she’d never driven was one thing, but her ignorance of fundamental principles was so profound it seemed willful. She didn’t notice street signs until I pointed them out to her. Worse, she was prone to panic. Once, when we were working on parallel parking, she forgot she was in reverse and accelerated when she felt the car moving backward, thinking that more gas was called for—despite my screaming, “Brake! Brake!”—and remained fully committed to this misconception until we plowed backward through somebody’s front yard and totaled a saguaro cactus. The next day I couldn’t coax her back behind the wheel without making two promises—that we’d give parallel parking a pass for a day or two and that, no matter what she did, I wouldn’t yell at her.

  Gradually, we moved from the relative safety of residential neighborhoods out onto busy Indian School Road. As time grew short we embarked on real-life outings with genuine purposes, to the supermarket or the drugstore. She always parked in the most remote reaches of the lot, where she was unlikely to encounter other cars or need to use reverse gear. We made a couple practice runs to her new place of employment, first during off-hours, then under more realistic rush-hour conditions. She got better. Not good—that would never happen—but hardly the menace her son had been a month earlier, towing a trailer down the interstate. At once terrified and game, she gripped the wheel as if expecting a sudden impact at any moment, and I came to realize that fear was probably her best defense against catastrophe. To see my mother grabbing hold like that was to understand that her mind, unlike that of 99 percent of drivers who were far more skilled and experienced, would never wander, even for an instant, from the task at hand.

  On the morning of her road test she took an extra half pill with her coffee so her hands wouldn’t shake, and by the time we arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles, she was wearing a smile so serene that I feared her examiner would take in at a glance that she was pharmaceutically impaired, but he didn’t. While they were gone I mentally drafted a contingency plan to call the university registrar and say I’d be a week or two late and beg them please, please, not to give my dorm room away. What I dreaded most was having to explain what was happening. No, I couldn’t predict exactly when I’d be joining my classmates, as it kind of depended on when my mother passed her driver’s test. What if I were asked to assess her chances? Or if the registrar wanted to know how it was that a woman in her forties in this day and age had never driven a car until two weeks ago? Would he have my file on his desk as we spoke? Would he say, Oh, right—Russo. The one from Gloversville. No wonder. I was still working on my side of this imaginary conversation when I heard my mother’s laughter from all the way across the room. She tossed her head girlishly as she approached, with her examiner, a small man a good fifteen years her junior, as firmly in tow as a dog on a leash. “And this is my son,” she was saying, “the one I’ve been telling you about.”

  “Your mom did fine,” the man said as we shook hands. “She didn’t run over a single cactus.”

  Then he wished her luck on her new job, and they shook hands, and he and I shook hands again, one big happy, complicit family. “What a nice man,” my mother said when we parted, loud enough for him to hear.

  To celebrate, we went to a restaurant for lunch, and my mother ordered a Bloody Mary.

  “You actually told him about backing over that saguaro?” I said.

  “He thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. They’re apparently quite expensive.”

  I’d suspected as much, which was why, after quickly swapping seats, we’d hightailed it out of there and I’d chosen an entirely new neighborhood to practice in when we resumed parallel parking.

  She showed me the temporary license she’d been given. “Hey, you know what this means?” I said. “You’re free.” Because every fifteen-year-old knows that a driver’s license is really about freedom, and I figured my mother, given how desperately she longed for true independence, would register the symbolism. But she just looked at me strangely. After all, she wasn’t fifteen; she was forty-five, and failing to learn would’ve sent her straight back to Helwig Street.

  She wasn’t blind to the magnitude of the moment, though, and when her drink came she reached across the booth and patted my hand. “Ricko-Mio,” she said, her smile less serene now, more loopy, “we did it.”

  Which was true. There were a few small things left on the to-do list, but nothing important or difficult. “You did it,” I said. Aware of how much all this had cost her, I was suddenly and unexpectedly proud of her, so proud it didn’t seem to matter that what we’d done was in fact borderline moronic. And part of me understood, too, what this unforeseen pride meant—that like my grandfather, I hadn’t believed she was capable of much of anything, really. I was proud she’d proved us both wrong, but also surprised. “In fact,” I said, “seeing where we were a couple weeks ago, I’m not sure how you managed to pull it off.”

  “Well,”
she said, looking so deeply inward now that I knew what she’d say next before she said it. “I just gave myself a good talking-to.”

  ALL THESE YEARS later it seems incredible to me that after helping me get settled at the university she drove back to Phoenix on her own. Not that it was terribly difficult. We could see the I-10 freeway ramp from the restaurant where we ate that last dinner together. She’d get on the interstate and not get off until she came to the Indian School Road exit, and she’d stay on that until she reached her apartment. It was late August, so it was still light out when she left. It would be dark by the time she got to Phoenix, but the traffic wouldn’t be bad. Of course if the Gray Death broke down in the desert she’d be all alone, and even if she could find a pay phone, what possible good would it do to call me? I don’t think I worried about any of that. I’d badly underestimated her, as well as our escape vehicle in recent weeks, and they’d both taught me not to. They’d make it fine.

  Indeed, as I walked back to campus along busy Speedway Boulevard, I had a profound sense that my mother’s life and my own had just diverged, probably for good. I’d be with her for Thanksgiving, and again over the Christmas holidays between semesters. But I’d seen my father before leaving Gloversville, and he’d offered to pay my union dues while I was away at school. That way, if I wanted to come home for the summer, I could get a well-paid construction job, and I’d already decided to do just that. Eighteen was legal drinking age in New York, and he’d begun to show more interest in me since my birthday. By next summer my grandparents would have rented the upstairs flat on Helwig Street, but they had a spare bedroom and would be happy to see me. I could paint the house on weekends to save them some money. I already missed both of them terribly, and for the first time felt the full guilt of having abandoned them. Somehow I’d try to set this right.

  My mother didn’t factor into any of these plans. Hey, she had the new life she’d wanted for so long. She had people her own age and a nice apartment and parties on weekends and nobody looking over her shoulder, second-guessing her every decision and criticizing her for having a little fun. If the Death didn’t die and she got a couple raises, her new ends might just meet. Why shouldn’t things work out for her? After all, Phoenix seemed to be the city of fresh starts, of rising from the ashes. There were lots of single men around. And with me finally out of her way, there’d be opportunities for the kind of romance I knew she craved, maybe even marriage, though I doubted she had much interest in that. She just wanted to dress up and go dancing or out to dinner someplace nice now and then. There was no longer any reason she shouldn’t have her wish. Back in Gloversville, her mantra had always been that we’d be just fine as long as we had each other, but that pact—unsustainable between a mother who would grow old and a son who’d eventually marry and have children of his own—could now be honorably dissolved by both parties. That’s what our long journey across America, all those scary on- and off-ramps, had been about. As she herself had put it, “Ricko-Mio, we did it.”

  And if we’d done it, it stood to reason that it must be finished, right?

  A Diagnosis

  DON’T DO IT.

  That was my father-in-law’s advice in a nutshell. He was not an unkind man, but he’d met my mother at the wedding and, like everyone else, he’d witnessed her fragile condition and sensed how near she was to unraveling. It would also have been clear how dependent she was on me, that if I ever left the room she’d nervously watch the spot I’d disappeared from until I returned. So when his daughter told him that my mother wanted to move in with us until she could find a job and start a new life in Tucson, he warned her that it would be a terrible mistake. “If you let that woman in,” he said, “you’ll never be rid of her.”

  She’d telephoned that morning in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. There was a three-hour time difference between New York and Arizona, and she’d waited as long as she could, but it was still early and also a Saturday, so Barbara and I were asleep. I’d been expecting the call for days, actually. My mother and I talked pretty regularly, so I knew where she was in the never-ending cycle of her anxieties. Sometimes venting to me did the trick, releasing some stuck emotional valve, allowing some of the pressure a means of escape, after which she’d pull herself together, give herself a good talking-to, and thereby avert coming completely unglued. “Can’t you understand?” she’d sobbed. “Doesn’t it matter that I’m a person? Don’t I have a right to a life, like anybody else? How long am I expected to live in a cage?”

  The cage was once again 36 Helwig Street, where she’d been living for a couple years. Phoenix had gone well for a time, but ultimately badly. She’d fallen in love with a man who looked like Sam Shepard and was about as laconic. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and drove a pickup truck. Then suddenly he was gone, and she was devastated. The story she told me was that they’d gotten too serious, too quickly. He had no desire to get married, so he’d left the state in hopes of forgetting her. That last part didn’t sound like the man in question, and a friend of hers later confided that he hadn’t left Arizona, or even Phoenix, or, for that matter, the neighborhood. He’d bolted once he discovered how intense my mother was about him, moving to another apartment house a few blocks away, where he was now seeing someone else. When my mother spotted his truck in the lot, it sent her into a tailspin. Had she mentioned, her friend wondered, that she’d lost her job at U-Haul? Well, no, she hadn’t, but she did the next time we spoke, saying that it was okay, that she’d hated the job from the start. The company wasn’t well run, nothing like the old GE in Schenectady, which for her always represented the gold standard of employment. What had she been thinking to leave it? she wondered out loud. Just imagine if she’d stayed. How many promotions would she have fielded by now? Just imagine her salary.

  It didn’t take her long to find another job, though it was no better, and she had no safety net if something went wrong, which was making her nervous. Her doctor had agreed to up the dosage on her Valium, but she didn’t like the way it made her feel. While she wanted to stop taking the pills entirely, she needed them to stay functional. Something was amiss at the apartment house, too. It had been so fun-loving and gay at the beginning, but the parties had turned dark, and there were drugs now. (By then it was the mid-Seventies, so maybe.) Worst of all was the driving—the traffic, the heat, the lack of air-conditioning. Something was going to have to change, or she’d suffer a nervous breakdown.

  Then, to my surprise, on the heels of the fleeing cowboy, there was suddenly another man in her life. Several years younger and recently divorced, he was clearly crazy about her. I’d met the man and liked him, though something didn’t seem right. She was always a sucker for style, and the men she was usually drawn to—like my father and the most recent fugitive—were invariably handsome and had a certain swagger, a boyish, self-destructive charm, a hint of danger. Russ had exactly none of that going for him, but he was good-natured and solid, the kind of man who might actually be good for my mother if she could learn to see past his unromantic virtues.

  “Well, I think he loves you,” I said when she asked my opinion about what she should do. “Do you love him?”

  She didn’t answer, so I said, “It sounds like you have a decision to make,” and she agreed that she did. Neither of us needed to articulate the exact nature of the dilemma: she could marry a man she didn’t love or return to Gloversville.

  The marriage lasted a couple years, one in Phoenix and another in San Francisco, then crashed and burned. After the split she moved to nearby Pacifica, which sat under a permanent bank of dense, wet fog. Her apartment was situated on a cliff, and from it you could hear the waves pounding on the beach below, and there she went about the business of once again putting herself back together. She had no job, though, and no means of getting one. I’d inherited the Gray Death when she and Russ went to San Francisco and was willing to give it back, but she said no, she was through with driving.

  So, when the money from the sm
all divorce settlement ran out, there was nothing to do but return to upstate New York. It was midsemester, and I was now in grad school, but I stole a few days and flew to San Francisco, where I rented a truck, packed her books and other possessions, put them in storage, and promised to drive them to Gloversville that summer. My grandparents found money for a one-way plane ticket to Albany. My aunt and uncle picked her up and drove her to Helwig Street, where my grandparents had evicted their upstairs tenant to make room for her. She arrived in Gloversville with two suitcases and an official narrative. She had not failed to make a new life for herself out west. Moving to Arizona had not been a mistake. She was not returning home in defeat, but rather because her father was failing fast, on oxygen all the time and for the most part confined to his armchair. The burden of his declining health on her mother was too much, so she was returning to help out. As with so many of my mother’s narratives, this one was designed for people who knew better—her parents, her sister and brother-in-law, me. She never cared whether people believed her, simply that her version of events was never publicly questioned.

  Being back in Gloversville worked for a while. She found a job and bought some furniture on credit. My grandfather’s condition was truly grave, and for a while her own problems paled by comparison. My mother had always adored him, and the rift caused by our departure for Arizona got mended. Further disputes were now out of the question; he had all he could do just to draw his next breath. For over a year she and my grandmother lived to the rhythm of his gasps until finally they stopped. Then they were alone in the Helwig Street house, two women who’d never seen eye to eye about anything. While my grandfather lived, they’d managed to coexist; neither had wanted to upset him, but with him gone the conflict resumed. To the old resentments—my grandmother questioning my mother’s decisions and offering unsolicited advice—was added another, far more toxic dispute. They simply could not agree on who my grandfather had been. To my grandmother, he was a loving husband, a model of responsibility and duty, the kind of man who quietly endured what could not be cured; to my mother he’d been a rebel, trapped just as she was in a town he hated, in roles as husband and father he’d never wanted but from which he could never escape. On top of all this, a recession hit, and my mother was laid off, and there wasn’t much to do with the day’s long hours except to take stock: once again stuck in Gloversville with no friends, no money, no future, no life. All of which had led to that Saturday morning when she’d called to ask me how long any human being was expected to live in a cage. There was only one person in the whole world who really cared about her, who understood and could help her, and that was me. She needed to make a new beginning, but she could hardly do it by herself, with no one to call her own.

 
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