Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  At the time my wife and I were living in a fourteen-foot-wide mobile home that we’d parked in a remote trailer park on the outskirts of Tucson, where rental spaces were cheapest. It had two bedrooms, one on each end, the architectural wisdom of which we didn’t fully appreciate until my mother came to live with us. It cost twelve grand, probably more than my grandfather had paid for the house on Helwig Street, and to me a terrifying sum to owe. How could we ever pay back that kind of money? My grad school stipend paid less than two grand for teaching two sections of freshman composition per semester. Barbara was a secretary at a tiny, fast-failing electronics firm that her father had started up with another engineer from Hughes Aircraft. They’d called the company Iota, which by the time we got married seemed to summarize its chances of surviving another year. For those reasons I’d hoped, right up until we closed, that the finance company would take a good look at us, come to its senses, and refuse us the loan.

  “She’d only be with us until she finds a job and can afford her own apartment,” I assured my wife. “She doesn’t want to live with us.”

  “There’s a recession here, too,” Barbara pointed out. “What will she do in this trailer all day when we’re gone? How will she get to job interviews? If she gets a job, how will she get back and forth to work? Who’s going to hire someone who can’t hold her hands still?”

  All good questions. With no answers anybody would want to offer.

  I didn’t even recognize her getting off the plane. Too poor to travel, we hadn’t actually seen each other in the year and a half since the wedding, by far the longest we’d ever been apart. She had to say my name, and I had to connect the sound of her voice to the frail, elderly woman coming toward me. Her hair had gone mostly gray, but it wasn’t that. She seemed about half the size of the woman who a few short years before had climbed behind the wheel of a car she only half knew how to drive and pointed it toward Phoenix and the new life she was betting everything on. Had she been like this at the wedding? Caught up in the event and my own happiness, had I failed to notice? When had she become so tiny? Or was it me, simply that I was looking at her with new eyes? After all, I was now married. At least symbolically my mother’s place in my life had been diminished. But, no, it was more than that. The way she came toward me had less to do with how I saw her than how she saw herself. In her own eyes she was about half her former size. When I held out my arms, she stumbled, nearly falling into my embrace. “Ricko-Mio,” she said. “Always there. Always my rock.”

  SHE WAS IN terrible shape, shattered and barely functional. Determined to get back on her feet as soon as possible, my mother immediately scoured the help-wanted ads but on most days didn’t make a single call, unable to control her voice, barely able to hold on to the phone because her hands shook so badly. On better days she’d set up interviews around my teaching responsibilities, then cancel them as the time approached and she became too nervous. I’d seen her in bad shape before, but this was new. It was as if her world had gotten smaller, or the part of it she felt safe in had. For Barbara and me the trailer was suddenly too small, its common areas, especially the kitchen, too cramped. We were constantly in one another’s way. That was what my mother seemed to like best about it. Back in Gloversville, after my grandfather’s death, she’d been living by herself in our old flat with the few pieces of furniture she’d bought and could no longer make the payments on. Whole days had gone by, she told me, when she never heard the sound of another human voice. The fact that we were so crowded in our trailer was having a healing effect. She was no longer alone.

  It also seemed to help that I was never gone for more than a few hours. Barbara had a nine-to-five job and left for work early, but my mother and I began each day over coffee, mapping out what she’d try to get done in our absence, and in the evening we all ate dinner together. I gave her my teaching schedule, so she knew when my classes got out and roughly when to expect me back. I knew to call if something unexpected came up at the university, because each afternoon she positioned herself at the window and waited for the Gray Death (yes, still alive) to pull up beside the trailer. Normally I’d have graded my papers and prepared for classes on campus, but things ran more smoothly if I didn’t leave her alone too long. Gradually, her condition did improve. She was able to cut back on the number of pills she was taking, and the tremor in her hands became less pronounced. She set up more interviews and actually made it to a couple of them.

  The problem was that though my mother was doing better, my wife and I were doing worse. She was finding reasons to stay later at work, and I couldn’t blame her. Each night there were three of us at the dinner table, but mostly my mother talked to me as if Barbara weren’t there. It was almost as if she’d forgotten I was married, that this extra, unnecessary person was my wife and not some girlfriend I’d soon tire of, or vice versa. She certainly didn’t dislike or resent Barbara and often remembered to thank her for opening up her home. It was my wife’s existence she couldn’t quite account for, as if she were a hologram, and when I asked Barbara a direct question, my mother often answered it. At the end of the evening, after we’d done the dishes, Barbara and I retreated to our bedroom as early as we decently could, and after turning out the lights we crawled into bed and whispered all the things we normally would’ve talked about over dinner. I think we both imagined my mother on the other side of the door, desperate to give us her input. We could no longer have friends over and felt guilty (or at least I did) if we went out someplace and didn’t include her.

  Not that we’d have gone out much. Iota Engineering was then in its death throes, sometimes unable to make its payroll. One month Barbara was paid in office furniture, and she had little choice but to start looking for another job. It was against this stark financial backdrop that we began to make weekend trips to places like FedMart to start furnishing the kitchen of the apartment my mother didn’t yet have. It seemed like a smart idea to do it little by little. A new frying pan or a set of cheap cutlery cheered my mother by bringing into imaginative focus the day when she’d be officially back on her feet and living, as she liked to put it, independently. It wasn’t just for her that we did this, of course. Buying the pan also allowed Barbara and me to believe that day was coming. One Saturday, though, I went too far and put too many things into the shopping cart, as if to hasten its arrival, and when I looked up Barbara was gone. I found her in the car, in tears. I’d spent money we simply didn’t have. Nor could we borrow it. Her father hadn’t drawn a salary in months, so her parents’ situation, with most of her nine brothers and sisters still living at home, was as dire as ours. There was simply no one in either of our families who had two nickels to rub together. And of course I made the mistake of saying we’d been fools to ever buy the trailer, and the look on my wife’s face conveyed clearly what she was too kind to say. We’d been fools, all right, but not about the trailer. Even if we assumed the day would finally come when my mother had recovered sufficiently to live on her own, what would be left of us?

  But eventually, that day did come, along with a great many others, and somehow there was still an “us” for my wife and me to protect and cherish. Indeed, over time our trials would appear to illustrate the old saw that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The threads we were dangling by in Tucson, both financial and emotional, proved more sinewy than we’d imagined. They would need to be.

  THE FURNISHED APARTMENT my mother finally rented in Tucson reminded her of the one she’d loved in Phoenix, and she found a job she could get to by bus. Weekends I took her to the grocery store and wherever else she needed to go. Otherwise, Barbara and I returned as best we could to the routines of our young married life and told ourselves that maybe it would all work out. But then summer was upon us with its pulverizing heat. My mother’s apartment was several blocks from the bus stop, and the buses weren’t necessarily air-conditioned, so she often arrived at work already wilted, with eight hours still to go. She ate lunch at her desk, there being no restaur
ants within walking distance, at least in the midday heat, and there were no sidewalks anyway. In July came the monsoon rains, the skies darkening ominously every afternoon right as she got off work, and the downpours, though brief, were apocalyptic. She must’ve felt like the physical world was mocking her, because by the time she got home, drenched to her skin, the skies would be blue again and steam rising from the asphalt, the air not just hot but humid. “What an awful, awful place,” she lamented, exactly what she’d said that morning in Phoenix after learning she wouldn’t be working for GE anymore.

  Ironically, what ended up doing her in was neither Tucson, with its heat and monsoons, nor the job she hated (her new company poorly run, nothing like GE), nor the fact that she’d made no friends, but rather the return of her emotional equilibrium. One of the ironies of my mother’s condition was that her periodic tranquillity was usually a mixed blessing. Panic might cause her to spin out of control, but once she got her bearings again, she could see beyond her own torment. Back in Gloversville, her desperation to make one last grab at a fulfilling life hadn’t allowed her to imagine what that would be like in Tucson. It had to be better because it couldn’t be any worse. In her mind’s eye everything she saw was on a Gloversville scale, only better. She pictured me living nearby, down the street, maybe, or right around the corner. But Tucson was like Phoenix, a sprawling city of identically ugly intersections, where you were always half an hour away from anywhere else. It was a sea of cars, and she didn’t have or want one. Being “close” in Tucson wasn’t ten minutes by foot; it was twenty minutes by car—and much longer if you were living, say, in a remote trailer park.

  Worse, her failure to accurately predict her own life in Tucson was compounded by her inability to understand ours. She had no idea how hard we were working, me on my Ph.D., Barbara on supporting us while I did. Even before my mother’s arrival, we’d been stretched thin in virtually every respect. As short as we were on money, we had even less time. I needed my Sundays for grading papers, and on Friday and Saturday nights, for extra cash, I was a singer in a popular restaurant. Barbara’s large family all lived in Tucson, which provided plenty of other obligations. But whenever something unexpectedly came up in my mother’s life, I always did my best to accommodate her, and she could tell it wasn’t easy. “You’re always there when I need you,” she’d said one day, gratefully patting my hand in the dentist’s office after she’d chipped a tooth. The plan we’d developed back at the trailer was intended to restore her independence, and its major components were now in place. She had an apartment and a job. What was dawning on her, though, was that none of this was sustainable. The truth was that she needed me, at least emotionally, all the time. The only thing that could work in the long run would be a version of the old Helwig Street model in which each of us was central to the other’s daily existence. But eventually, Barbara and I would have children, and as a father I’d have even less time to devote to her. And when I finished the Ph.D., my university career would begin, and who knew where that would take me? Back in Gloversville it might have seemed that we were separated only by geography, by all those miles, but now she understood that our separation was not only more profound than she’d imagined but was in fact only going to get worse.

  By the time the holidays rolled around, she’d given herself a good talking-to. Coming to Tucson had been a mistake. It was time to admit that. And also, starting over in her midfifties was, well, too late. She hated Gloversville, God knew, but maybe it was the right place for her, maybe the only place. Her mother had welcomed her back before and would again. They would simply have to find a way to get along. Toward that end, she had a new, better idea. Instead of living upstairs in our old flat, she’d move into the spare bedroom downstairs, and they would share expenses. The upstairs flat could be rented, further bolstering their bottom line, taking financial stress completely out of the equation. And, to put my worries to rest, she pointed out that it wasn’t like we’d never see each other again. There were far more colleges and universities east of the Mississippi than west of it, so I’d more likely end up teaching somewhere back east, and we could spend our holidays together. She’d worked it all out, just as she had that long-ago plan to come west with me in the first place, letting me in on the details only after her own mind was made up. I wasn’t asked what I thought of the decision, simply informed of it, which was just as well.

  Maybe coming to Tucson had been a bad decision, as she said, but returning to Gloversville would be another. What I couldn’t give voice to was my growing certainty that my mother was lost in some labyrinth of her own thoughts and impulses, and that if she was ever going to escape the maze, she’d have done so already. Since leaving Gloversville myself, I’d come to understand that this had also been my grandfather’s fear. I remembered that last day on Helwig Street when he’d watched from the front window, gulping air from his oxygen tank, as my friends and I loaded the U-Haul. Over the long months of bitter conflict, his anxiety had morphed into resignation in the face of his daughter’s tidal determination, but when my eyes met his I didn’t yet understand the true nature of his concern. He was worried about what would become of my mother, of course, but also what would become of me. Even if he’d had the desire, he lacked the breath to say all this, and anyway it would have been a terrible betrayal of the daughter he couldn’t stop loving, regardless. Probably less harmful, he must have reasoned, to maintain the long-established family narrative. My mother suffered from nerves. So did lots of people.

  Ironically, the one person who ever openly questioned that narrative was my father. He wasn’t one to indulge regret or apologize, but the summer I turned twenty-one we were working road construction together in Albany, and he must’ve decided the time was right to explain his absence during my childhood. We’d stopped at half-a-dozen roadhouses on the way home, as was our dangerous habit, and were very drunk. “I should’ve thought about you more,” he admitted, “but you were easy to forget. There was always something going on, a horse at the track that couldn’t lose or some poker game. You seemed to be doing fine without me.” When he paused, I figured he’d said his piece, but then he added one last thing. “And anyway, I couldn’t be your father without being married to that crazy woman.” The expression on my face then must have been strange, because he leaned back on his bar stool so he could really take me in. “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”

  I don’t know what I looked like, of course, but I recall being for a time unable to speak. I probably just sat there with my mouth open, a series of unwelcome emotions washing over me in waves. First anger at the seeming ease with which my father, who had no right to do so, had offered his judgment. After all, if my mother was crazy, at the very least he was a contributing factor. But even more powerful than anger was a totally unexpected surge of relief, because his verdict was no sooner rendered than I realized it was true, that I’d known this myself at least since the morning in Phoenix when she’d finally come clean about not really having a job at GE awaiting her there; and probably, truth be told, some part of me had known it for much longer. How many meltdowns, followed by good talking-tos, had I witnessed as a boy, too frightened to draw the necessary inference? Later on, as an adolescent, how many times had I suppressed the terrible possibility that something in my mother was off-kilter? Hadn’t I also suspected all along that other family members—my grandparents and aunt at a minimum—also knew this but refused to say anything? Now, for the first time, I understood how lonely I’d been in my fears and suspicions, how alone I’d felt in the possession of adult knowledge to which I was hardly entitled.

  And, finally, I felt guilty. That I’d come to the same heartless conclusion as my father was a terrible betrayal, surely. I don’t recall whether that came right away or later. I only know there’s been enough to last a lifetime. How else to explain my willingness to jeopardize my young marriage a decade later and, as the next three decades unspooled and my mother’s condition worsened, the many times I?
??d repeat that same mistake, refusing to acknowledge the primacy of other loyalties subsequent to those forged on Helwig Street. Suffice to say that my mother wasn’t the only one caught in a dangerous loop of repetitive behavior.

  NOT LONG AFTER she returned to Gloversville from Tucson, I began a decade-long academic nomadship during which I jumped from job to job, trying to teach and be a writer at the same time. For a while, after our daughters came along, we were even poorer than we’d been as graduate students. And I was a bad boy. Caring not a whit about tenure and promotion, I thumbed my nose at the advice of department chairs about what I needed to do to succeed in the university. I left jobs for other jobs that paid less but offered more time out of the classroom. In the summer, when many of my colleagues taught extra classes, I wrote stories and spent money we didn’t have on postage to submit them to magazines. I wrote manically, obsessively, but also, for a time, not very well. I wrote about crime and cities and women and other things I knew very little about in a language very different from my own natural voice, which explained why the editors weren’t much interested.

 
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