This girl I’ve been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening. She’s a little drunk—I bought a couple of bottles of hopefully decent Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s on my way over to her house—and now she’s a little drunk and a little belligerent. There is something about me that she doesn’t like, and we’ve been arguing obliquely all evening. It’s only our fifth real date, and though we’ve slept together once—it was the week after my mother died, pity sex, so it doesn’t exactly count—we don’t know each other that well.
For example, I just found out that she has an ex-husband who lives in Japan, who technically isn’t an ex-husband since they haven’t officially divorced.
For example, I didn’t know that she thought I was a bad kisser: “Your kisses are unpleasantly moist,” she says. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Actually, no,” I say. “I’ve always gotten compliments on my kisses.”
“Well,” she says. “Women very rarely tell the truth.”
I smile at her. “You’re lying,” I say, cleverly. But she doesn’t seem to catch the interesting paradox. She looks at me blankly and downs the last bit of wine in her glass. Then she turns her attention to the tree that rises up alongside the railing of her deck, follows the trunk upward where it branches out, and locates her cat, Mr. Niffler, about ten feet above us where he has fled to escape the terror that is me, his claws fixed tightly into the bark, an expression of dyspeptic alarm on his face.
“Mr. Niffler,” she calls. “Kitty, kitty, kitty. What are you doing up there?” And then she gets up and goes to the base of the tree. She hoists herself up on the two-by-six ledge of the railing and stands there, teetering for a moment.
“You know,” I say. “That doesn’t seem like such a good idea.”
My mother appears in the doorway, silhouetted in the morning light. Her dark hair stands up stiff, like a shrub. Smoke from her cigarette curls up. I’m half-awake but I can see how bony she is, a skeleton in a nightie, barely ninety pounds. She’s not much heavier than the two Brittany spaniels that hover behind her—Lady and Peaches, my mother’s dogs, watching as she wakes me, alert and so quiveringly shy around men that they sometimes pee a little when I speak to them. I can feel their tension as I stir in my bed.
“Okay,” I murmur. “I’m up, I’m up.” But my mother and her dogs just stand there. My mother is a few weeks away from her sixtieth birthday and I am nearly forty, but for a moment, here in my old teenaged room, we replay our roles from the past. She knows that if she leaves, I will roll over and go back to sleep. Lazybones.
So after a moment, I sit up. I’m an adult, and I wipe my fingers across my face. “What time is it?” I say, though she can’t hear me.
She’s been deaf for almost five years now. A freak infection shut her ears down despite various attempts at intervention by various doctors—but the truth is that in half a decade she hasn’t done much to help herself. She stopped going to her lipreading classes early on, and forget about sign language or anything like that. She refuses to hang out with deaf people.
Mostly, to be honest, I don’t know how she occupies herself. I don’t know who her friends are or where she goes or what she does with her soundless days. The dogs make little anxious noises as I pull the covers off, and I watch as my mother turns, as her bare, crooked feet slide across the carpet toward the kitchen, where she will make me coffee and breakfast. It’s about six in the morning, time for me to drive from Nebraska back to Los Angeles, where my fairly successful grown-up life is waiting for me.
I am between my second and third date with Rain at this point, and I’m looking forward to seeing her, things are going well I think. “I’ve met a girl I really like,” I tell my mother. At the time, I have no idea that she will fall out of a tree. I have no idea that she thinks I am a bad kisser.
In the emergency room, there is a Plexiglas barrier between me and the receptionist, whose name tag says VALENCIA.
“I’m here with Rain Welsh,” I tell her, and she asks me how to spell it. I have the purse and the billfold and I put Rain’s driver’s license and insurance card through the little mouth-hole at the bottom of the glass wall.
“Are you the husband?” Valencia asks me, and I shift awkwardly, looking at the stack of neatly rowed credit cards in Rain’s billfold.
“I’m the boyfriend,” I say. “I don’t really know that much about her. She fell out of a tree.”
“Please take a seat in the waiting area,” Valencia says. She gestures toward the couches just beyond. A series of five Mexican children—boys and girls, aged approximately two to nine—are sitting politely together, watching a sitcom on the television mounted on the wall.
“Do you know how long it’s going to be?” I ask Valencia. But that’s not the right question. “Is she going to be all right?” I say, and our eyes meet for a moment. I am usually pretty good at these kinds of encounters—I have the face of a nice person—but Valencia doesn’t approve.
“Take a seat,” Valencia says. “I’ll let the doctor know that you’re waiting.”
I’ve been talking to myself a lot lately. I don’t know what that’s about, but my mother was the same way. She hated to make small talk with other people, but get her into a conversation with herself and she was quite the raconteur. She would tell herself a joke and clap her hands together as she let out a laugh; she would murmur to the plants as she watered them, and offer encouragement to the food as she cooked it. Sometimes I would walk into a room and surprise her as she was regaling herself with some delightful story, and I remember how the sound would dry up in her mouth. She stood there, frozen in the headlights of my teenage scorn.
Now, as I close in on my fortieth birthday, I find myself doing a lot of the same sorts of things. An ant crawls up my leg and I say, “Excuse me? May I help you?” before I slap and crush it. I get up in the morning and narrate my way through the rituals of awakening. “Okay, we’re taking a shower now,” I whisper, and I mumble shampoo into my hair and toothpaste into my mouth and stand mesmerized in front of the coffee machine. At times, the procedure seems heartbreakingly complicated—grinding the beans into dust, separating the filter from the packet (which requires the same kind of fine motor skills as threading a needle), bringing water from the sink to the reservoir of the automatic coffee maker. My God, it’s like building a house every morning, just to get a cup of coffee! I stand there at the counter holding my mug, waiting as the water burbles through its cycle and trickles into the pot. “Okay,” I encourage softly. “Okay, go— Go!” At times I get very urgent with my coffee, as if I am watching a horse race that I have a lot of money riding on.
Now, in the emergency room parking lot, I am having a very involved talk with the contents of my girlfriend’s purse. “I cannot believe this is happening,” I mutter to the handbag, confidentially. “This is ridiculous,” I say, and then I find what I’m looking for. “Well, hello, beautiful,” I say, to a crumpled pack of extra-long, extra-thin, feminine cigarettes: Misty, they are called.
My mother collapses on the floor of her bedroom. She is perhaps on her way to the bathroom or to let the dogs out. I am sleeping in a motel outside of Provo, headed back to L.A., and she lies there unconscious, her face pressed against the carpet. The dogs are anxious, pacing from the bedroom to the back door in delicate circles, nosing my mother with their muzzles, whimpering introspectively. They lower themselves beside her and rest their heads against her side as her breathing slows and she goes into a coma. They lick her salty skin.
She is still alive when her neighbor friend comes by the next morning. The dogs have relieved themselves in the kitchen, unable to control their bladders any longer, and they hide in shame under the bed as the neighbor friend calls my mother’s name. “Mary Ann! Mary Ann!” the friend, Mrs. Fowler, calls. Even though my mother has been deaf for as long as they’ve known each other, Mrs. Fowler nevertheless continues to speak at her—loudly, steadily determined, oblivious. When she sees my mother on the floor, she screams like a maid in a murder mystery.
When I get back to Los Angeles, there is a message waiting for me on my answering machine. “Charles,” Mrs. Fowler will recite in her most declamatory voice. “This Is Mrs. Fowler. Your Mother’s Friend. I Am Sorry To Have To Tell You That She Is In The Hospital, And Very Ill.”
After I’ve listened to the message a few times, I get on the cell phone and call Rain. “Listen,” I say. “It looks like I’m going to have to cancel our date again. You won’t believe this but I have to fly back to Nebraska. My mom’s in the hospital! It must have happened practically the minute I left!”
“Oh my God,” she says. Her voice is soft with concern, actually very warm and—though we’ve only dated briefly—seemingly full of genuine tenderness. I imagine her touching my hand, stroking my forearm. She has beautiful dark brown eyes, the ineffable sadness of a girl who drinks too much. I’m drawn to that.
“Actually,” I say, “I think my mom’s going to die. I just have this feeling.”
“Go,” Rain says, firmly. “Just get on that plane and go to her,” Rain says. “Call me when you get there.”
I know that she is going to fall, but I’m not sure how to stop her. I stand there with my hands clasped awkwardly behind my back as she shimmies unsteadily up the tree toward her cat. “You know,” I say, and clear my throat. “Rain, honey, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea.” She pauses for a moment, as if she’s listening to reason; and then, abruptly, she loses her hold on the branch. I watch as her body plunges down like a piece of fruit, not flailing or screaming or even surprised, but simply an expressionless weight coursing to earth. She hits the edge of the deck’s railing, knocking over a plant, and I say: “Oh my God!” And then she lands on her back. “Oh my God,” I say again, and finally have the sense to move toward the flower bed where she has come to rest.
“Are you hurt?” I say, leaning over her, and for a moment she doesn’t open her eyes. I take her hand and squeeze it and a tear expels itself from beneath her eyelid and runs down her face.
The wind has been knocked out of her, and at first her voice is hinged and creaky. “I’m so embarrassed,” she whispers, wheezing. “I’m such an idiot.”
“No, no,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”
But she begins to cry. “Ow,” she says. “It really hurts!”
I bend down and kiss her on the mouth, comfortingly. “It’s okay,” I murmur, and run my hand over her hair. But she flinches, and her eyes widen.
“What are you doing?” she gasps. “I can’t feel my legs.” And then she begins to cry harder, her mouth contorting with a grimace of sorrow like a child’s. “Don’t touch me!” She cries. “I can’t feel my legs! I can’t feel my fucking legs!”
Another hour passes. The five children and I sit in the waiting area and watch television together, and I keep my eye on them. These children seem to know what they’re doing, whereas I have never been in a hospital waiting room before. Rain’s purse sits in my lap and the children laugh politely along with the prerecorded laughter on the soundtrack of a comedy show.
I am not really sure how I am supposed to behave in this situation. I can’t help but think that I should be sitting at Rain’s bedside, pressing her damp hand between my palms. I should be arguing vehemently with doctors, demanding results, I should be surrounded by people who are bleeding and screaming and shocking one another with defibrillators. I sit there for a while longer, imagining this romantic pandemonium, and then finally I go to stand in line at the reception booth again.
When I sit down in the chair opposite the bulletproof glass, Valencia stares at me grimly. “Yes?” she says, as if she has never seen me before.
“Hi,” I say. “I was just checking on the status of Rain Welsh. I’ve been sitting here for a while and I hadn’t heard anything so I thought . . .”
“And you are. . . ?” Valencia says.
“I’m the boyfriend. I’m the one that called the ambulance. I’ve been sitting right over there waiting because you said . . .”
But she is already looking away, staring at her computer screen, which faces away from me, typing a little burst of fingernail clicks onto her keyboard. Pausing, pursing her lips. Typing again. Pausing to consider. Typing again.
“She’s in x-ray right now,” Valencia tells me at last, after several minutes.
“Well,” I say. “Do you have any idea how long it’s going to be? I mean, do you have any idea what the situation is? I’ve been sitting here patiently for a long time now, and I’d just like to know . . .”
“That’s all the information I have, sir,” Valencia murmurs firmly, and gives me a look that says: Are you going to give me trouble? Because I know how to handle troublemakers.
“So I guess I’ll just wait,” I say. “I’ll just wait right over here.”
NO SMOKING ON HOSPITAL GROUNDS, so I head out to the bus stop, on the sidewalk just beyond the parking lot, and stand there to smoke one of the nasty Mistys that I found in the purse. It has a perfumey, mentholated flavor, like a cough drop dissolved in Earl Grey tea.
I had no idea that Rain smoked, and in some ways this makes me like her more. The fact that she was shy about it, that she wanted to hide it from me. That’s kind of sweet.
I’ve always liked the idea of smoking more than I liked the actual smoke. Watching someone in a movie smoke, for example, is a lot more pleasant than waking after a pack of cigarettes and coughing up a yellow-green slug of phlegm.
But nevertheless I have a predilection for it. My mother was a fiercely committed smoker, and, growing up, I probably ingested half-a-pack-a-day’s worth of secondhand smoke. I’ve always found cigarettes comforting, a taste of childhood, the way some people feel about Kellogg’s cereal or Jell-O or Vicks VapoRub.
I’m just about finished with my smoke when I look up and see three women coming toward me. The women are being led out of the emergency room in their gowns and slippers, pushing their wheeled IV stands down the sidewalk. The IV stands look like bare silver coatracks; a clear plastic bag full of clear liquid hangs from each one, and a tube runs from each bag to each woman’s arm. They walk along, single file, followed by an orderly who is talking on a cell phone. When they get close to me, they all stop, take out packs of cigarettes, and light up.
It’s pretty surreal, I guess. I didn’t realize that such things were allowed, but apparently they are desperate enough for nicotine that someone (the orderly, smoking himself) has decided to take pity on them. Has sneaked them out the back door for a quick fix.
This isn’t, after all, the fanciest neighborhood in the world, nor the nicest of emergency rooms. The women are all poor to working-class, grim-faced, clearly having a bad day, and I can’t help but think of my mother—who wouldn’t go anywhere unless she could smoke. Had, in fact, once left a hospital in outrage because they refused to give her a “smoking room.”
I stand up, gentlemanly, and nod as the women approach.
“Hello, ladies,” I say. “Beautiful evening.”
Having grown up kind of poor-to-working-class myself, I can’t help but feel a kind of kinship with them. “You really romanticize the white-trash period of your life,” Rain once said to me, which I thought was a little hurtful but—perhaps true.
There is, for example, this blond woman who reminds me of my mother’s side of the family—all sharp cheekbones and shoulder blades, sinewy muscle, a body built for hardscrabble living—and I smile companionably at her as she breathes smoke into the night air. She is gazing off toward some cheap apartment buildings in the distance, the vertical rows of identical balconies, and I stare out with her. Together we look up and see the moon.
As expected, she’s dead by the time I get there. By the time my plane touches down she’s being moved from the hospital to the funeral home, and her friend Mrs. Fowler calls me on my cell phone as I’m standing in line at the rental-car place.
“Charles,” Mrs. Fowler says. “Would you go and sit down somewhere for me, honey? Sit down in a comfortable chair.” And then her voice breaks. “I have some terrible news.”
About two hours later, I pull into the driveway of my mother’s house in my rented car and it still hasn’t sunk in.
The death of a parent is one of those momentous occasions, one of the big events of your life, but what do you do, exactly? My father died when I was three, so I barely even remember it, and my ex-wife’s mother passed away during the early, happiest years of our marriage, and I had to do hardly anything at all, I just stood by looking sympathetic and supportive and people would occasionally nod at me or pat me on the shoulder.
So: sinking in. I sit there in my car, idling in the driveway, and I try to remember exactly what went on at the funeral of my late ex-mother-in-law but my mind has gone completely blank. Here is the door of my mom’s house, well-remembered childhood portal. Here is the yard, and a set of wires that runs from the house to a wooden pole, and some fat birds sitting together on the wires, five of them lined up like beads on an abacus.
I left home when I was eighteen—more than twenty years have passed!—and though I came back dutifully every year, the connections that held us together grew more threadbare as time went on.
I can remember being about five or six and running around and around that lilac bush in the front yard, chased by Mother. Laughing, joyous, etc.
I turn off the ignition in the rental car and after a minute I take out my cell phone and call Rain.
I don’t know why. We seem to have connected; she seems like a very bright, sensitive, caring woman.
“This is Rain,” she says. She is in the middle of directing a commercial, a public-service announcement about teen suicide, and her voice has an official snap to it.
“I need some advice,” I say. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“Charlie?” she says, and I love the way that she says my name, a matter-of-fact tenderness.
“My mom’s dead,” I tell her.
A little past midnight, the television has been shut off and the children in the waiting room are huddled together in a row on the chairs, leaned up against one another smallest to largest, sound asleep.
How long are people expected to wait in these places? No one seems to know the answer, though as time has passed I’ve tried to engage some of my fellow waiters in conversation on the subject.
“I’ve been waiting here for five hours,” I disclose, and people regard me with varying degrees of commiseration. “Does that seem normal?” I ask them. I don’t know why I do this: why, after all these years in Los Angeles, I still have the Nebraskan’s urge to banter with strangers.
I seem vaguely familiar to people, which is frequently a kind of advantage, particularly in Los Angeles. They are always asking: Do I know you from somewhere? And I shrug modestly. Probably they have recognized my voice from television commercials, or—especially if they have children—from one of several popular animated series such as Fuzzy Fieldmouse and Friends. One of my specialties is the earnest, disarmingly boyish voice. “I don’t know if I can do it,” Fuzzy Fieldmouse often says. “But I know I can try!” Anyone who watches children’s programming on public television has no doubt heard me utter this phrase.
Which is not to say that this gives me any particular leverage in a situation such as this one. It’s not as if I can throw my weight around with Valencia: “Do you realize that I am the voice of Fuzzy Fieldmouse?”—doesn’t exactly open many doors. Though I have to admit that I am used to being a little better liked than I have been tonight. Valencia has glanced over at me once, but when I gave her a little hopeful wave her face went still and her gaze swept past. When I finally managed to catch her eye she emanated a serene kind of inhospitality, like Antarctica or deep space.
And so another hour has passed when a man comes out of the Authorized Personnel area to wake the children.
“Little ones,” the man whispers, and I watch as head by head they lift their sleepy faces. “Do you want to go back and see mommy?” the orderly says. “Your mommy wants to see you guys.”
It’s kind of heartbreaking how delighted the poor kids are, how excited they are to see the mommy. Yes! Oh yes! They beam, and the girl of about four actually does a little hopping bunny dance, and the orderly gives me an indulgent look. “Cute,” he says.
It occurs to me at that moment that no one will stop me if I follow them. I can just walk right through along with them, just shadow them past the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL sign, past the security guard who stands holding the door open for them, following along as if I might be some kind of guardian, an uncle, perhaps, a neighbor or family friend.
Amazingly, no one says a word. I just line up behind the tiniest child and march right through, the security guard even smiles respectfully at me as if to acknowledge that, hey, I’m a good guy, to be watching over these children. I glance over my shoulder at Valencia, and she’s chatting with someone on the phone; she isn’t even looking.
Shortly before she falls out of the tree, I think Rain is getting ready to break up with me. We have been circling around that sort of conversation all evening long.
She has been telling me about her husband. “Your ex-husband?” I say, and she says no, actually, they are still married, it’s just that he has been living in Japan for the past year and they’re going through a period of questioning. Deciding what to do, letting things drift, and so forth. “You know what I mean,” Rain says, and takes a long drink from her glass of Chardonnay.
“Um,” I say, and consider. “Hmm,” I say. Did I know what she meant? Up until the moment that she told me about the husband, I’d thought things were going pretty well between us—so perhaps not.
“I’m a little surprised,” I tell her. “About the husband thing.”
She sighs. “I know,” she says. “I realize that I should have told you. But—you know. All this stuff with your mother and so on. You seemed like you were in a very fragile state.”
“Fraj-ile,” I say, pronouncing it the way that she does—as if it might be a popular tourist destination in the Pacific, beautiful Fraj Isle with its white sandy beaches and shark-filled coves.
It’s the kind of conversation that reminds me of my own former marriage, which fell apart abruptly, perhaps similarly, with a series of emotional signals that I had completely failed to interpret.
“Surely you realized how unhappy I’ve been for the past few years,” my ex-wife murmured, and I recall this as Rain tilts another few ounces of wine into her glass.
The rooms where the patients are being kept are not exactly the way they appear on television. Everything very subdued, people huddled individually in their little warrens with the flimsy curtains pulled partway closed.
I fall back as the children are led toward the cubicle where their mother is awaiting them—no one has stopped me or even seems to notice that I’m here, and it appears that actually once you make it past Valencia that’s pretty much all there is. Still, I’m feeling a bit wary. I slow my pace, let the children pitter-patter away. I try to peer surreptitiously into the little curtained roomlets, looking for Rain.
I can’t help but think of the pens in an animal shelter, the stricken, doomy look of the strays as you pass by, that sense that it’s a bad idea to make eye contact or pause.
I drift past several dreadfully intimate tableaux, trying to avert my eyes. Behind one curtain is the melancholy glare of a bleeding, tattooed hip-hop guy, emasculated by cotton smock with periwinkle pattern; behind another is the skeletal old man (woman?) in an oxygen mask, whose gaze of biblical despair trails along beside me as I pass.
“Hello,” I say, at last, to a woman with a clipboard—my heart is beating very fast, I’m feeling as if I’m having a kind of panic attack, wouldn’t that be a laugh?—“Hello,” I say, whispering exaggeratedly, as if the nurse is an usher at a matinee I’m interrupting. “I’m looking for a woman named Rain Welsh—”
And then—as if I have been led directly to her curtained doorstep—there she is, I see her only a few yards away. She is sitting propped in her bed, wearing a neck brace and a metal halo that encircles her forehead, frozen there into an alert, attentive posture the way statues of empresses sit in their thrones.
“Charlie?” she says, and she watches with a kind of dreamy abstraction as I come toward her. It’s not clear if she’s glad to see me, but I hold up her purse like a treat: Look what I brought for you!
“Hey, sweetheart,” I say, still in my whispery voice. “How are you?”
“Eh,” she says. It seems like it takes her a lot of effort to compose a sentence. “I don’t know. They’ve got me on pain meds, so I can’t really tell.”
“But you’re okay,” I say, encouragingly. “You’re not paralyzed or anything, right?” I say this and then I realize that it has been a fantasy hovering in the back of my mind: what if she’s paralyzed? Would I be courageous enough to stick with a wheelchair girl? Would I be amazingly, fiercely loyal, would she love me for it, marry me, etc.? I can feel this scenario passing again briefly through my future and my smile stiffens.
“Charlie,” she says. “What are you doing here? It’s two o’clock in the morning.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I couldn’t exactly leave you.”
“Oh,” she says—her voice a dreamy, medicated sigh. “Oh, Charlie. I told them to tell you. You should just go home.”
“Well,” I say. “I’m just trying to be, you know. A good guy.”
“I appreciate that,” she says, “but—” and her brain seems to drift along down the stream for a ways before she lifts her head. “But honestly, I’ve been thinking. This is,” she says, “really not working out between us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while that . . .”
She closes her eyes for a moment, five seconds, ten seconds, and when she opens them again it seems that she has lost her train of thought. She smiles up at me fondly, as if I’m an old dear friend she hasn’t seen in a long time. “Did I tell you, Charlie? My husband is flying back from Japan! I’m going to be in traction for a few weeks and he’s flying home to be with me.”
I consider this for a moment. “Wow,” I say. “That’s wonderful,” I say.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says, and I watch as she closes her eyes, blissful as a sleepy child. “I wanted our last night together to be . . .”
I wait for her to finish her sentence, but now she appears to be completely asleep, and her expression slackens and sags. “Rain?” I say, and I adjust the blanket on her bed, straighten the wrinkles underneath her hand. For a moment, I imagine that I could just sit here and talk, the way Mrs. Fowler used to talk to my mother, my mother sitting there deafly, the two of them watching TV, Mrs. Fowler chatting away.
I have this concept going around in my head, I would love to try to get it off my chest, but when I start to talk she makes a little sad face in her sleep. She moans lightly.
At last, I set Rain’s purse on the bed at her feet. Her cigarettes are still tucked in my pocket.
This is one of those things that you can never explain to anyone, that’s what I want to explain—one of those free-association moments with connections that dissolve when you start to try to put them into words.
But I consider it for a moment, trying to map it out. Look: Here is a china knickknack on my mother’s coffee table, right next to her favorite ashtray. A shepherdess, I guess—a figurine with blond sausage curls and a low-cut bodice and petticoats, holding a crook, a staff, in one hand and carrying a lamb under her arm—a more mature Bo Peep, I suppose, and when I am eleven years old I will notice for the first time the way her porcelain neckline dips down to reveal the full slopes of her porcelain breasts. Years later, when I am nearing forty, I will notice a woman in a hospital gown and slippers walking through the parking lot of an emergency room, holding her IV stand like the crook a shepherdess carries, and I will lean over my sleeping ex-girlfriend and try to explain how I found myself in a Möbius strip of memory, traveling in a figure eight out of the parking lot and cruising past the glimmering sexual fantasies of an eleven-year-old noticing the boobs on a porcelain figurine and then curving back again to find myself in my mother’s house, a few days after her funeral, hesitating as I’m about to drop the shepherdess into a plastic trash bag full of my mother’s other useless belongings.
Alone in my mother’s house, I am ruthless with her possessions. I live in an apartment in Venice, California, and I don’t have enough room for my own stuff. For example, what should be done with an old cigar box full of buttons and beads that she has inexplicably kept? The collection of whimsical salt and pepper shakers? The cards and letters, the dresses wrapped in plastic in the closet, unfinished needlework, clippings from newspapers, her high-school yearbooks, her grade-school report cards, a doll she loved when she was two, all the accumulation she stuffed into drawers and boxes and the corners of closets? What can I do but throw it away? Though at last I spare the little shepherdess, I stick it in my pocket and eventually I’ll find a place for it on my own coffee table.
The dogs, Lady and Peaches, are not so lucky. They hide from me most of the time that I am cleaning out the house. They sleep underneath my mother’s bed, crouching there as I haul bag after bag of junk out into the daylight, as I dismantle furniture and leave bare rooms in my wake. At last, almost finished, I tempt them out of their lair with a trail of luncheon meat that leads to a dog cage, and when I close the metal door behind them, they gaze out through the bars at me with a dull, grief-stricken stare. They are older dogs, and it seems cruel to take them to the pound, to try to find some new home for them after all the years they spent with my mother. Still, I don’t look them in the eyes again. I do not stick around as the veterinarian “puts them to sleep,” as they say, one after the other, with an injection of sodium pentobarbital. I drop the dogs off at the veterinarian’s office and drive away, back toward California, and driving along the interstate I realize that this is something I will probably never tell anyone, ever.
Perhaps such things will accumulate more and more from now on, I think. More and more there will be things I can never explain to anyone. More and more I’ll find myself lost in parking lots at four in the morning, stepping through the rows upon rows, the long sea of vehicles spreading out beneath a canopy of halogen streetlights, and me with no idea whatsoever where my car might be. I’ll find myself pressing the teeny button on my car’s automatic antitheft alarm system. “Where are you?” I will whisper to myself. “Where are you?” Until at last, in the distance, I will hear the car alarm begin to emit its melancholy, birdlike reply.