Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  My first full-time job was as an assistant professor at a branch campus of Penn State University. Altoona was a good day’s drive from Gloversville, close enough for holiday visits but too far for my mother to expect much more. We continued to talk on the phone at least once a week, and these calls were for her a lifeline. I knew things weren’t going well. She’d moved into the spare bedroom downstairs as planned, but she and my grandmother, who was by then in her eighties and crippled by arthritis, still weren’t getting along. They liked different TV shows and different food, and rather than come to an accommodation my mother insisted on cordoning off their existences. Since the dining and living rooms were roughly the same size, they set up their own camps. They had no choice but to share the kitchen, though my mother refused to cook or to allow my grandmother to, arguing she was the one who’d have to clean up. So at lunchtime each made her own sandwich using her own personal ingredients, and for dinner each warmed her own frozen dinner in the oven. Afterward, they watched their favorite shows on their competing televisions, bickering endlessly about whose volume was turned up too high. My grandmother seemed to understand that this was lunatic behavior, but confronting her daughter would only have made matters worse. With her husband gone, the balance of power had shifted. Short of threatening to toss her out, something my grandmother never would’ve done, she had little leverage, so gradually my mother’s will became law. When we visited, usually during the holidays, they strove for a truce, but you could tell they were unused to speaking to each other beyond demanding that the rival television be turned down. One day my father stopped by to say hello, took in the arrangement at a glance—my grandmother’s furniture crammed into one room, my mother’s into the other, the two TVs a few feet apart blaring different shows—and regarded my mother for a long moment, then said, “Jean. What the hell’s wrong with you?”

  Not long afterward he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and this more or less coincided with my taking a new job in New Haven, which meant I’d be only four hours from Gloversville instead of eight; given the deteriorating situation there, closer seemed to me, if not better, at least more advantageous. My father did his chemotherapy and radiation, and his cancer went into remission before it ultimately returned even more aggressively. Finally, too sick to care for himself, he was admitted into the VA hospital in Albany, where I visited him every other weekend. He seemed less concerned about his own mortality than not having anybody to bet his daily doubles at the OTB. “You going over to Helwig Street when you leave here?” he’d ask, incredulous, like a man who’d dodged a bullet even more dangerous than death. “That’s some crazy shit going on over there.”

  In the spring of our second year in New Haven I sold my first novel, as a result of which I was offered my first real job as a writer. Until then I’d been a teacher with a writing habit that was tolerated but not necessarily encouraged. The new job, in Carbondale, Illinois, offered everything I’d wanted for the last decade—a real writing program, good colleagues, time to do my own work. But it was too far away, I knew. Instead of being four hours from Gloversville, I’d now be three days. My mother needed me closer, not farther away. I explained why I had to take the job, and she agreed I’d be a fool not to, but not long after we were settled in Carbondale, I got what would be the last of those frantic Helwig Street phone calls from my mother demanding to know why she didn’t deserve a life the same as anybody else and how long she was expected to remain locked in a cage. I called my aunt to see if things were as bad as they seemed and learned they were actually worse, much worse. There was a lot going on, most of it old: conflicts not only unresolved but also unresolvable. But one new thing my aunt mentioned scared me. My grandmother had been prescribed a new medication in capsule form, to be taken with food, and my mother had somehow gotten it into her head that this meant the capsules needed to be ground up in her food, which she then proceeded to do over my grandmother’s tearful objections. When my aunt discovered what was going on and confronted her sister, explaining that the medication simply should be taken with meals, she became unhinged, screaming that if anything happened to their mother, it would be my aunt’s fault. She had shouldered the entire burden of my grandmother’s deteriorating health for years, she claimed, expected to make every single decision, but if her judgment was going to be questioned, now or ever, then she wanted nothing more to do with it. My aunt could take over all those duties and see how well she liked them. Apparently this fracas had precipitated the call to Carbondale. My aunt knew and was very fond of my wife, and knew we had our hands full with new jobs and two small daughters, but I could tell she was also worried sick for my grandmother, and when I asked if I should come get my mother, she reluctantly agreed it might be for the best.

  By the time I got to Gloversville, she’d calmed down some. The knowledge that I was coming, that I’d be there by week’s end, allowed her to step back from the precipice, but she was clearly in terrible shape, far worse than when she’d come to live with us in Tucson. At the time I owned a pickup truck into which we loaded her things, mostly books. What didn’t fit was left behind. I’d borrowed a camper shell so we could lock everything up at night when we checked into motels. Together, we drove back across the country on the same route we’d taken twenty years before. The truck had air-conditioning, but my mother suffered one panic attack after another, and she swore she couldn’t breathe, so we had to drive with the windows open to the August heat. Between these fits she regaled me with stories about how awful the last few years had been, detailing every single responsibility that was hers and hers alone, how abusive her sister and mother had been. “You have no idea how cruel they were,” she said, over and over. “I kept it all a secret.”

  As we made our slow journey west, my wife was busy trying to find a place for her to live. Before I headed to Gloversville, we’d negotiated as best we could the terms for how all this would go. Assuming she wasn’t a danger, my mother would stay with us until September. She was retired now, on Social Security, so she didn’t need to work, and she qualified for elderly housing, if we could find it. Halfway to Illinois I called Barbara, who said there was an opening at the senior-citizen tower, exactly the sort of place I knew my mother would veto. The next day I explained patiently that the apartment would only be temporary until we could find something better, that it was five minutes from our house, and she’d have the rest of August with us to get back on her feet and orient herself to her new environment before moving in. Since her only other option was returning to Gloversville, she had to go along with this, though she had a stipulation. The tower had to be only for the elderly, with no Section 8 residents. She refused to live with crazy people.

  She also wanted to know if my driver’s-side window was rolled down all the way, because she couldn’t breathe. I knew how she felt. I couldn’t either.

  FIVE YEARS LATER, in 1991, I was offered a teaching position at Colby College in Maine. What made the position especially attractive was that it was part-time, a relative rarity in academia. At long last I was earning some money from my writing, almost enough—maybe, if nothing went wrong—to live on. At Colby I’d have more time to write and health insurance despite my part-time status, as well as a tuition subsidy for our daughters. If things went well, I could imagine writing full-time in a few years. We were also anxious to put southern Illinois’s buggy, humid, tornado-ripe summers behind us, not to mention its passive-aggressive religious fundamentalists. I was tired of answering the door on Sunday morning to find strangers wanting to talk about Jesus. When we politely (for the most part) declined, they’d peer inside and see all the books, then shake their heads and advise us to put away our pride. “All them books don’t amount to nothin’,” they’d tell me, “not if you don’t know the Good Book.”

  There were, however, compelling reasons to stay put. Barbara liked her job, and our daughters had their friends, and I was pretty sure the university would match whatever Colby offered. And of course there was my mother. She’
d changed apartments twice since I brought her to Carbondale, and while she hated it there, she at least was settled. Like she always did after leaving Gloversville, she now remembered it fondly as the home from which she’d been exiled. She called every week to talk to her sister and mother and ended all these conversations by saying how much she loved and missed them, how lucky they were not to live in the Midwest. During the long spring and summer months, when the tornado watches beeped and inched incessantly along the bottom of television screens, she phoned with a familiar lament: “What an awful, awful place.”

  She was anxious to go to Maine, of course, because she’d be closer to home, but could she make the trip? It would be, no matter how we handled it, a logistical nightmare. Say we went to Maine, found a place, moved in, and then returned for my mother. Well, she couldn’t be left alone for longer than it took milk to spoil because it would, literally, spoil. Even more important, her emotional well-being was tied to our proximity. On any occasion when we’d be gone for just a week—taking the girls to Disney World, for example—it was necessary to let her know well in advance so she could accustom herself to the idea, and then she required telephone numbers not only for every place we’d be staying but also for various friends in case she needed backup. Still her anxiety level always rose to fever pitch in the days before we left, and afterward we were pretty sure she upped the dosage of her meds on her own authority. Since it might take us a month to get settled in Maine, leaving her behind was simply out of the question. The opposite scenario—setting her up in an apartment in a strange new place, then returning to Illinois to go through our own move—would be, if anything, worse. Therefore, we’d have to make the move together, putting everything in storage until we found accommodations.

  Actually, after I accepted Colby’s offer, we discovered all this was going to be even more difficult. What few decent apartments were available in the Waterville area got snapped up seasonally by faculty and staff, so finding a place for my mother was going to be a challenge. On top of that, the housing market there was tight and expensive. Barbara made two exploratory trips that spring, saw numerous listings, and came back dejected both times. There was nothing even remotely as nice as the house we were selling in Carbondale. Worse, it wasn’t selling. After two months, no one had even insulted us with a lowball offer, whereas in Waterville, where we wanted to live because of the schools, anything good got snapped up before we could see it. Since we’d be moving over the summer, we were advised to rent a camp on one of the nearby lakes and look at our leisure. If we saw something we liked we could make an offer within twenty-four hours.

  As our departure date approached, my mother again showed signs of coming unglued. There was just so much to be done, she kept saying, and she had to do it all herself. Actually, I kept reminding her, there was nothing for her to do. I’d hired a mover, scheduling her things to be loaded onto the truck the day before the same mover added our own. I would pack up her books and anything that wasn’t going on the truck myself. The night before the move, she’d stay with us. Yes, she said, but that still left hundreds of other tasks she’d have to do, though when I asked what they were, she’d collapse into the nearest armchair and claim she was too exhausted to think. Nor could we agree on how to handle the simplest details. It was June, and the temperatures already in triple digits, but she was adamant that we drive to the phone company to terminate her service, then to the cable company, and so forth. We could do that by phone, I pointed out. No, she said, she’d never had much luck with the phone. She was afraid the utility companies wouldn’t refund her deposits, and that was money she couldn’t afford to lose. I promised to make good on any losses, but she didn’t want my money; she wanted her money. The day her stuff was to be loaded on the truck, it was more than a hundred degrees by nine in the morning, and when the truck pulled up and two skinny black kids got out, I knew we were in trouble. The driver couldn’t have been more than eighteen, and the other looked about fifteen and weighed a hundred and ten pounds tops. “Stay here,” I told her, then went outside to talk to the driver and sign the paperwork. “My mother’s in a bit of a state,” I warned him. “I’ll try to keep her out of your way.” I’d hoped to convey this vital information to the other kid, too, but he’d gone directly inside. He was in there for about ten seconds when I heard my mother wail, “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!” as if he were jabbing her with a hat pin. Arriving on the scene, I saw that he’d picked up my mother’s credenza by one end and was intent on taking it outside. It wasn’t a heavy piece of furniture. He’d taken one look at it, sussed out that it was made of pressed sawdust, not wood, and hoisted it into the air. “You’ll break it!” my mother was screaming at him, her hands over her mouth. “You’ll break it!”

  In the car, she sat there, her face in her hands, still picturing the kid with the credenza. “You need to calm down,” I told her. “If it gets broken, I’ll replace it.”

  “But I love it,” she said.

  “Mom,” I said. “It’s from Kmart.”

  It took a good minute for her to respond to this unwelcome fact. “Don’t you have things that you love?” I didn’t answer, and she was quiet until we pulled into the driveway of the house we’d be leaving the next morning. “Do you really think I’m not trying?” she said, her hands shaking and bottom lip quivering. “Because I am. I hope you never know how hard.”

  There wasn’t much to say to that. She was trying. As hard as she could. As was often the case with my mother, it was her utter lack of success that strained credulity.

  AND SO WHATEVER didn’t fit into our two small cars went into storage, to be delivered we knew not when to we knew not where. For my mother, who always preferred to settle things wrongly than to leave them unsettled, a nightmare. For all concerned, the next five days turned out to be another. Barbara drove one car, with Emily and Kate listening to music on their headphones in the backseat, my mother riding with me in the other. Officially unraveled now, she suffered one anxiety attack after another, unable to breathe unless all the windows were down, muttering all the while, “Dear God, how much longer?” Our progress was slow, torturous. In the morning it took her a good hour and a half to get ready, and by late afternoon she’d had all she could endure, and we’d have to pull off. She needed a hotel room to herself, which was fine, because by then so did we. She needed another hour or more to shower and dress for dinner, and then we had to scout out the possibilities. “I’m sorry, but really I can’t bear it,” she’d say if the place was too loud or she could smell grease when we walked in. When we finally found a restaurant she could bear, the first thing she did was ask our waiter to turn down the air-conditioning because it was freezing, and often there was something wrong with the table we’d been seated at. What she was hoping for, of course, was never on the menu. “If only they just had a grilled cheese sandwich,” she’d lament. “Could you ask if they’d make me one?” My mother never ordered for herself in restaurants. She explained what she wanted and expected me, as the man at the table, to communicate her desires. If a waiter addressed her directly, she’d say, “My son will order for me.” Sometimes, depending on just how disappointed she was with the overall proceedings, she’d add, audibly, “If they were professionals, they’d know it’s the man who orders.” Emily, ever the peacemaker where her grandmother was concerned, would try to appease her. “I don’t think that’s the way things work anymore, Grandma,” she’d say. “Certainly not in T.G.I. Friday’s,” her sister would add. Most days, I’d about had it by that time. “There are two hundred people in here, Mom. You have to order from the menu.” Sometimes Barbara would note that there actually was a grilled cheese sandwich on the kiddie menu, which it would then fall to me to order. “That was perfect,” my mother would say when she was finished, now in a better mood. “It was all I wanted.” By then I’d usually had a couple bottles of beer or a margarita. Would you please, for the love of God, just shut the fuck up and eat your Jell-O? That was what I’d have liked to say. Items
on the children’s menu always came with Jell-O.

  Our second day on the road, around dawn, we were awakened by a call from the motel’s front desk. During the night somebody had broken into my car, smashing in the windshield with a tire iron. Nothing was stolen, but we couldn’t get back on the road until we spent the morning getting the windshield replaced. The front seat and floor were vacuumed, but tiny glass shards had worked their way into the fabric of the seat cushions, and by the time I drove back to the motel where my family anxiously awaited, my undershorts were pink. My mother would now have to ride in the other vehicle. “Which car do you want to drive?” I asked Barbara. That is, would you rather have my mother in your car for the next seven hours or bleed from the ass in mine? After twenty-five years, she was used to such choices. Still, she seemed to debate this one for a long time.

  We took a bath towel from the motel and put it down on the seat, and then I slid in gingerly behind the wheel. “Try not to squirm,” my wife advised.

  I gave her what I hoped was my most appreciative smile. “You too.”

  WE’D RENTED A large camp on Great Pond for this summer of house and apartment hunting, and the girls immediately claimed its loft for their own. They could listen to music on their headphones without disturbing the adults, and with the lake only a few feet from the back deck, they could swim whenever they wanted, which was always. Late afternoons Kate and I fished, though we never caught anything, and weather permitting I cooked outdoors on the grill. The nights were so perfectly black and quiet we could hear the water lapping gently against the dock, and we fell asleep more often than not to the singing of loons.

 
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