Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  Barbara and I divided our two major tasks. Working with a local realtor, she scoured the market. Most of the nicer houses, at least the ones we could afford, were in developments outside town, whereas we wanted to be in town, near the college if possible, in the Waterville school district, but the few decent neighborhoods seemed to be out of our price range. One of the good things about moving to a grungy mill town, we’d thought, was that we’d be able to afford a nice house. Apparently we’d thought wrong. Every time Barbara returned from one of these expeditions she seemed more dispirited.

  She had company. My job—finding a place for my mother—wasn’t any easier. She was better now that we’d gotten off the road but was still a bundle of nerves, and I knew she wasn’t going to calm down until things were, as she put it, “settled.” That is, until she had an apartment and her belongings were installed and she could get back into her routines. A nice, cozy little one bedroom, bright and airy, carpeted, nothing extravagant. It was fine if this was in an apartment complex, but it had to be for elderly residents only (no families with children). She wanted nothing to do with “assisted living.” Because she refused to take money from us—or at least no more than necessary, as on Helwig Street—we quickly determined that she couldn’t afford market prices. That meant something subsidized, where her rent would be keyed to her monthly Social Security stipend. Unfortunately, these federal and state subsidies were tied to onerous regulations, the most objectionable of which was that Section 8 “crazies” could not be turned away, and she refused to live with people like that. In theory she didn’t object to renting a flat in a private home, but she couldn’t abide old plumbing, so the kitchen and bathroom would have to be modern. Unable to climb steep stairs anymore, she would need to be on the first floor, a preference shared by those who owned most of these homes. But finding a downstairs flat was no guarantee, because she hated to hear people walking overhead, so the upstairs floors had to be carpeted. After a week of poring over the ads in the local paper, of pulling up in front of apartments only to drive away immediately if a car was up on blocks at the curb (a Maine specialty) or the yard was infested with weeds or the house itself looked ramshackle, we quickly discovered that the place my mother was looking for simply didn’t exist, at least not in Waterville. Once we knew where the clean neighborhoods were, we drove them street by street, hoping a FOR RENT sign might’ve magically appeared in a window since yesterday, but none ever did, and with each passing day my mother became more and more deflated. Eventually I decided to visit Colby College, ostensibly to introduce myself to my new colleagues, but also hoping to tap some local insider knowledge. Everyone agreed that we’d have to expand our search. The few good apartments in town were quickly rented by college faculty and staff. The time to look was late May, at the end of the school year, not mid-July. Under the circumstances our best bet would be to consider nearby Winslow or Oakland. Several people recommended we try Farmingdale.

  Farmingdale, however, was a good half hour away, and given my mother’s increasingly fragile condition, that would be stretching it. The apartment she’d envisioned wasn’t just bright and clean and airy and carpeted and on the first floor, with updated plumbing, it was right around the corner from our house, the one we hadn’t found yet and probably couldn’t afford when we did. Even if we could find the perfect house, it wouldn’t be perfect if it was so distant. That evening one of my new colleagues called to say that she remembered an apartment complex in Farmingdale on a hill overlooking the Kennebec River, so over dinner, I suggested we drive out there the next day, when it was supposed to be warm and sunny. We could have lunch on the river, then take a peek at the complex. What harm could it do? I didn’t expect this weak pitch to succeed, but it did.

  The apartments did indeed sit on a hill overlooking the river. They were tidy and clean, the grounds well kept. Better yet, to judge by the sign, an apartment was actually available. “It’s an awfully long way from you,” my mother said as we pulled into the lot. “It’s a good distance from Waterville,” I agreed. “The problem is we don’t yet know where we’re going to end up.” Which was true. Just as she and I were expanding our apartment search, so was Barbara expanding hers. One of the nicer houses we’d seen was in Winthrop, a suburb of Augusta, about ten minutes from where we now sat.

  In fact the vacancy, a one bedroom on the ground floor, was carpeted, if not as bright or airy as one might have hoped. But the complex looked to be about a decade old, so the plumbing was modern, and I pointed out the cable TV hookup. It was by far the best apartment we’d seen, and I could tell my mother was balancing this with the fact that it wasn’t exactly what she’d pictured. She wasn’t asking for a lot. Couldn’t she, just this once, have what she wanted? In the kitchen, with the apartment manager looking on, she paused to draw her index finger along the surface of the stove.

  Outside, noticing another complex farther up the hill, my mother asked about it, because it looked nice.

  “That’s for families,” the woman said. “You said you didn’t want that, right?”

  “It’s awfully close,” my mother said. “Do the children come down here?”

  “Never,” the woman assured her. “The two complexes are completely separate.”

  “I think we’ll keep looking,” my mother told her, nodding at me. “My son and his family are going to be in Waterville, and he wouldn’t want me to be that far away.”

  Back in the car, she took a tissue out of her purse and wiped her index finger over and over. “Did you notice how filthy it was?” she said. “And don’t tell me the children don’t come down that hill. And she admitted they took Section Eight.”

  “That’s a federal law,” I reminded her. “If it’s subsidized, they can’t turn away people who are eligible. It was the same back in Illinois, if you recall.”

  Of course she did. “Remember that first place I lived? Where that disgusting woman who lived across the hall refused to take her medications?”

  But not being “settled,” or even close to it, was wearing on her, I could tell, and when we pulled in back at the camp, she said, “Why isn’t there something like that in Waterville?”

  “I don’t know, Mom,” I said, “but you have to order from the menu.”

  Her mouth tightened at this. I’d been saying it a lot lately.

  THEN WE CAUGHT a break. Two of them, actually. During one of her trips that spring, Barbara had seen a house she loved, though it was too expensive. It was still available, and the price had come down a bit, but what really made it worth reconsidering was something we hadn’t considered: taxes. We’d been warned by my Colby colleagues and just about everyone else, including realtors, that real-estate taxes here were brutally high. It hadn’t occurred to us that people almost everywhere believe they’re overtaxed—a belief particularly virulent in Maine. One afternoon, as an exercise, Barbara sat down with our realtor for the first time and actually ran the numbers on that house, only to discover that it wasn’t completely out of our range and that, compared with Illinois, taxes in Maine were a bargain. True, you got less house for your dollar, but a smaller percentage of that dollar went to the state. The result was a push. Better still, now that the house had been on the market for almost two years, the sellers were thought to be motivated. What could it hurt to look? Given that love invariably enters through the eye, that was a dumb question. We looked, and of course it was the ideal house. Back at the realtor’s we ran the numbers again with the same result. It would be a stretch, but not impossible. I called my literary agent to ask what kind of money we could reasonably anticipate in the coming year, then told the realtor we’d sleep on it and decide in the morning whether to make an offer or not. But by the time we got back to the lake, we’d changed our minds and called our realtor and instructed her to make an offer that would reveal if motivated meant the same thing to these sellers that it did to us a few months earlier in southern Illinois, when it had been synonymous with desperate, or about to pray for the first t
ime in twenty-five years.

  We might have guessed what effect our finally finding the house would have on my mother, but we didn’t. My mantra—that come the end of the day, she was going to have to order off the menu—was an idea she’d always resisted. Usually she stood her ground, maintaining that we just had to keep looking, that there had to be something we simply hadn’t found yet. And of course by we she meant me. But the journey from Illinois had taken more out of her than we knew, as had the repeated rental disappointments. Maine itself—the deep stillness of the woods, the piney dampness of the camp, the lonely sound of the loons out on the pond in the middle of the night—seemed to unmoor her; these rustic routines were ours, not hers, and she was increasingly desperate for control over some little corner of our present existence. One evening Barbara and I met a new colleague and his wife for dinner in nearby Belgrade Lakes, leaving her and the girls alone at the camp for a couple hours. Emily and Kate were up in their beloved loft, headphones on as usual, listening to music and dancing. Their youthful exuberance must’ve been too much for my mother. Eventually, even with their headphones on, they heard her calling up to them from the bottom of the stairs, asking them to please keep the noise down. She was trying, she explained, to count her change.

  The next day things came to a head. We’d been in negotiation all week with suddenly unmotivated sellers who were playing things as if they had the stronger hand, which meant they did. They’d apparently heard that the bidder was a Colby College professor, and in a mill town like Waterville that was their dream come true. Worse, it was now early August, and classes would start in a few weeks. The sellers had no doubt also heard that we were out on Great Pond in an unheated camp that would be impossible to stay warm in past the end of September. To their way of thinking, we were like Napoléon. On impulse we’d invaded Russia, and winter was coming.

  On the night in question, all five of us gathered around the camp’s television with the sound down low so we could hear the phone if it rang. The patio door was open just a crack, because the nights were already chilly. Through the opening came a sound like paper being wadded into balls—but loud, as if played through a bullhorn. Orange light, for some reason, was dancing on the smooth surface of the lake. The camp two doors down from ours was ablaze, huge columns of fire soaring into the sky. All around the cove people had come out onto their decks to watch. When the fire leaped from the camp itself to the two nearest pine trees, I said, “Uh, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but let’s get in the car and drive up to the main road.” On foot, it would be an uphill climb along the dirt road, and my mother didn’t do uphill anymore, even in broad daylight. There wasn’t much of a breeze, but if it shifted in our direction, I’d have to carry her, leaving Barbara to attend to the girls. We’d all just piled into our cars when the fire trucks careened down the road, effectively trapping us in our drive. Along with the neighbors, we watched the building burn down to its foundation, the firefighters seemingly content to keep the flames from leaping from tree to tree and camp to camp. As often was the case with my mother, when faced with a real worry, some clear and present danger, she was remarkably calm, reassuring Kate and Emily that everything would be fine, that the firemen knew what they were doing.

  The episode did, however, provide her with a valuable new context. “I’ve changed my mind about the Farmingdale apartment,” she said the next morning over breakfast. “Let’s take it.”

  I nodded, not wanting to queer the deal with excess enthusiasm. “Do you want to go look at it again?”

  “No, I’ve decided.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Let’s call her now,” she said. “Then it’ll be all settled.” And after that, we could call the movers and set a date for the delivery of her things. She could start making out a grocery list.

  “It looks like we might be getting the house we want,” I told her (as we did, the day after). “You can stay with us for a while if you aren’t sure,” I said, feeling Barbara stiffen next to me. “We can keep looking.”

  “I’m sure,” she said. “Let’s call now.”

  Right now, she meant, right this second. Which was fine. I’d just needed to hear her say the words. Otherwise, when the Farmingdale apartment didn’t work out (as it wouldn’t), she’d remember it as being all my fault, and at the very least I had to make her complicit.

  So we made the call. The apartment was still available. Yes, we could drive to Farmingdale later that morning with a deposit. And when we returned, we could start calling the telephone, cable, and utilities. That afternoon, when Barb and the girls were out, she called her sister in Gloversville to celebrate, describing the apartment in detail and how quiet the complex was—all elderly, no Section 8s—and how it sat on a hill overlooking the river. My aunt must have said it sounded perfect because I heard my mother agree, and of course she’d convinced herself that it was. “And the best part?” she added. “It’s not just a new apartment. It’s a new life.”

  By the time she hung up, she was aglow. “Oh, Ricko-Mio,” she said, giving me a hug. “It feels so good. I don’t know why it took me so long to decide.”

  That evening, though, she began to come down from her manic high. The movers had called, and it would be at least two weeks before they could deliver her things from Illinois. No, they couldn’t give her a specific delivery date; the problem was she had so little that it would have to go on the back of a truck bound for New England with a larger load. And, of course, she’d begun to remember her original misgivings about the apartment. “Before we move in so much as a stick of furniture, the whole place will have to be professionally cleaned,” she said. “Remember the layer of grease on that stove top?”

  I considered saying no, since I didn’t, then decided to agree that, yes, it had been greasy.

  “It’ll be worth the money,” she continued, her conviction on this point unshakable. To the uninitiated, it no doubt would have appeared that it was her own she meant to spend.

  Again I agreed, this time really meaning it. For the bargain price of a good cleaning, we’d be purchasing peace of mind. Temporary, yes, but no less necessary for that.

  Unsettled

  THAT’S YOURS, you know,” my mother said, startling me. She’d drifted off to sleep in her chair, and for the last hour I’d worked quietly, packing her books in preparation for yet another move. She was now living in Winslow, in her third apartment since we moved to Maine a decade earlier. How long had she been awake, observing me? I’d been listening to her low, regular breathing as I worked and hadn’t noticed any change. I made a point of not watching my mother when she slept. Whereas other people relaxed in sleep, my mother’s face always became rigid, a rictuslike mask, as if even in sleep she was doing battle with demons that would advance whenever her conscious guard was down. A month earlier she’d had another major meltdown, after which she’d slipped into one of the listless fugue states that so often followed a manic event. Coming out the other side, there was always a return to sanity, and at least for a time she’d rediscover her ability to see things as they were, her thoughts no longer barbed and dangerous. But this most recent meltdown seemed to have taken a greater toll than any of the others, and things we’d fought pitched battles over in the past seemed not to matter now. All of which was both welcome and a little unnerving, and all afternoon as I’d packed her books, my mother drifting in and out of sleep in her reading chair, I couldn’t help wondering if something had finally broken inside her. I feared it might be her spirit. What made me almost physically ill to contemplate was that there’d been times when I’d secretly wished for precisely this, because it was her indomitable will that fueled this costly, unwinnable war, her intractable determination that was responsible for her seemingly endless suffering. Now, though, seeing her as listless and malleable as she’d been these last few weeks, I understood that this had been a mistake to hope for.

  “I do wish you’d take it home with you,” she sighed, referring to the copy of Anita
Brookner’s Hotel du Lac I’d just run across. I’d loaned her the book the year before, and at the time she’d claimed to like it, though when I offered other Brookners, she’d quickly said no, she didn’t think so, there was so little room on her shelves.

  Which was true enough, I thought, setting the novel aside. Her bookcases were crammed, many of the shelves double stacked. But of course there was more to it than that. I was forever buying or loaning her books I thought she might like, something at least entertaining enough to distract her from her growing list of physical ailments. She suffered crippling arthritis in her fingers, toes, and lower back. For this she took Aleve, which made her stomach feel like someone was clawing at it from the inside with a garden tool. She had acid reflux and high blood pressure and a thyroid condition, all three of which required medication, and she complained of her legs “locking up” when she had to walk uphill or for any distance. She was also suffering periodic TIAs, or ministrokes, that left her exhausted and afraid, the fear making another such event all the more likely. And even if there’d been a cure for these problems, it wouldn’t address the relentless cycle of her anxieties, the feeling that the walls of her world were closing in.

  Occasionally I’d pick a winner, something “in the tradition of” Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham or Mary Stewart or one of her other favorite authors, but mostly she’d read a few pages and declare that they were in the tradition of trash, of rip-offs, of a fast buck. The next time I visited they’d be sitting on the table by the front door, usually in a ziplock Baggie, to be donated to the next library book sale. As the Baggie suggested, the issue was contamination. My mother loved every single book on her sagging shelves, as they’d allowed her countless hours of escape. She didn’t want them rubbing spines with books she deemed unworthy.

 
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