My mother calls from Seattle. Her voice sounds close, rasping in my ear like a crab scuttling over dry rocks.
“Reva?” she says, “Reva, I need you. Please come up here, Reva. Right away.”
She has bad arthritis. She walks stooped over in little short steps like a penguin. She used to be taller than me and now she’s several inches shorter. Yet she refuses to live in a drier climate. She loves the sea.
“But Mom, George and I are going down to L.A. this weekend to see someone about a baby. We’re going to adopt a baby. I can’t come right now, Mom.”
“A baby? But I’m desperate, Reva. You’re my baby. Please, please, Reva.”
My heart tightens in the old familiar way. “Mom, you have people there to help you. I’ve made sure of that. I just can’t come running up there all the time. I’ve got my job. I’ve got a life.”
Our plans for the weekend have been a long time in the works. After trying every position and every herbal potion, every little trick anybody suggested, like George wearing boxers instead of briefs, and other things, too, I wouldn’t even want to mention, we’ve decided to adopt. Biologically, I’m running out of time. With our low income and my flaky past, we’re afraid we’ll never pass the requirements of a legal adoption agency and so, to avoid one more disappointment, we looked around for a private arrangement instead. Many of our friends suggested Guatemala.
But as I said to George, “I’ve read articles about how babies are stolen from women down there, or they give them up because they’re so poor. I don’t want to take advantage of someone else’s misery.”
He agrees. Then he was given a tip by one of the teachers at the school where he works as a custodian. Someone she knows in L.A. employs an illegal Mexican maid. The maid got pregnant but has a husband and family back in Mexico. Now she’s terrified. Her husband will kill her if he finds out. The teacher says we’d be doing her a favor.
At first I had some doubts. “I don’t know. What if something bad happens between her and her husband anyway? Then she might change her mind and want to keep that baby. And then what would we do? I wouldn’t want to feel I was taking a baby away from its mother who wanted it. I just wouldn’t want to live with that.”
“Yeah,” said George. He thought a moment. “We could agree to give it back if she ever changes her mind.”
“But we would love it already. That would be hard.”
“Well, real love isn’t possessive.”
For this, I love him. Sometimes he’s naive, but he’s always good-hearted, unlike most men I’ve known before.
We’re saving our money to move into a ground floor flat, a place where a baby can have a good home. I dream of a Victorian with a bay window and a baby crawling through square patches of sunlight.
Right now we live in a damp, cold basement apartment in a building that probably was once a warehouse, or maybe a sweatshop, in the Mission district. The front door is four steps down from the sidewalk and opens into a tiny kitchen alcove, which in turn leads into a large, dark room that I’ve divided into areas: a living area with a couch, a coffee table, and an easy chair, good for reading, under a hanging light bulb that I’ve covered with a white Chinese paper lantern; in one corner, behind a Madras curtain, a double bed, a dresser, and a clothes rack; in the other corner, a stack of boxes piled in the shape of a ziggurat.
George is always saying, “Let’s unpack the boxes. Aren’t there things in them we could use?”
I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, no matter how many times George has pleaded and no matter how many times I resolve to. There are nine of them: differently sized, smooth, brown, heavy cardboard cubes neatly packed with no bulges, with closed and sealed flaps. I feel their quiet, reassuring presence in the room. I feel a solidity in them, in having all my things—letters, junk, memories—enfolded in paper and scraps of cloth and laid away inside walls of cardboard. I like the way a dim gleam breaks through the high rear window and throws brush strokes of light and shadow across them, highlighting certain surfaces with a twilight glow.
“I could build shelves for all the stuff,” he says.
“It’ll just clutter up the room.”
“If I took a night class at City College, maybe I could turn that corner into a study, put a desk there.” He wants to expand his opportunities in life, especially if we’re going to have a baby.
I’ve had some college myself and I know it helps getting better jobs. “Oh honey, that’s a good idea. But isn’t the couch perfectly fine for studying?”
I keep making excuses. Now, with the baby, I can say, “We’ll wait till we move into a bigger place.”
My mother grew up in Seattle and married a trucker, my father, who left one evening in the middle of watching The Beverly Hillbillies, my mother’s favorite show, and never came back.
I don’t remember him much, other than one time when he lifted me over his head and grinned up at me with his mouth open so I saw down to the back of his pink throat, which frightened me and made me think of the big bad wolf.
My mother braved on, waiting for him, smoking and watching her television shows alone on the couch, until one day I came home from school and the living room was filled up with boxes, large, empty boxes with the flaps open like the mouths of hungry animals.
“Guess what, Reva,” she said. “We’re going to move in next door to your Aunt Rose, where you can play with your cousins while I work. It’s going to be lovely. It’s a nice little town with lots of trees and grass. We’ll be as snug as two bugs in a rug.”
I was in first grade and learning how to read, and I recognized the word “house” on one of them—”W-E-S-T-I-N-G-house.” It reassured me. I asked if that was the name of the place where we were going, but my mother said no, we were going to a town called Forest Grove.
“Doesn’t that sound like a pretty place? It’s near Portland.”
When my mother talked about working I imagined her in an apron, baking cookies, like a picture in my first grade reader. I thought Aunt Rose must be some kind of fairy godmother.
But Aunt Rose spied on us and popped into our house any time she felt like it, without so much as knocking. “What are you all doing there behind your pulled down shades? Am I missing something?” she asked. “You haven’t put out the garbage yet? They’re coming in the morning, and we don’t want the neighbors to have to smell it all week, do we?”
She never had a nice thing to say to us. My cousins tied me up and left me in the shed when they played cops and robbers. My mother did not bake cookies but worked in a jam factory at minimum wage with no union.
Then the boxes appeared again.
“I never could stand Rose. How could I have forgotten that? I won’t make such a big mistake next time, I promise you,” my mother said.
We kept on moving. My mother would get laid off or fed up with the work or something would go wrong, but always she found new jobs, even during recessions. She worked as a short order cook, a hospital orderly, a chicken plucker; she owned a saltwater taffy concession for a while, and a pawn shop. She talked about someday finding a white clapboard cottage on an ocean bluff with wild blackberries and beach morning glories running wild through the yard, and we drifted up and down the coast looking for it. At every move we left behind another piece of furniture, and at the new place she’d say, “Here we be, you and me, by the sea.”
She complained of being tired, she sighed a lot, yet somehow she kept us afloat. I had few toys and spent my time watching television and wandering around outside kicking the dust. We usually lived on the rough edges of town where there were no sidewalks, and never actually by the sea. I never learned to roller skate or swim. Instead, I acquired the skill of taking placement tests almost yearly—bullshitting in other words.
I made friends over and over but they could only loosely be called friends; they were beginning-to-be-friends. Once in a while one of them would come over to play at my house, and I could detect the surprise, covered by politeness, at the spareness and makeshift nature of the furnishings. If my mother was around, she was overly friendly. Every ten minutes she’d butt in: “Would you like some juice, dear? Some cookies? I could go buy chocolate graham crackers. Are you sure? Is everything all right? Did Reva show you where the bathroom is?” She’d be in her pink hospital uniform or her green chicken plucker smock. I would cringe.
My mother didn’t have real friends either. She found a woman or two from her workplace to have coffee with on Saturday mornings, but when we moved again she never kept in touch. She had no boyfriends. Occasionally she went out to bingo games.
I began to feel a pulse to this life, an excitement. I could always look forward to something different ahead.
In Juneau, Alaska, she had a pawn shop. People there were, like us, wayfarers—dreamers, pipeline workers or gold panners, trappers, land speculators, down on their luck if they came into the shop. Often they’d gone months out in the bush without seeing a soul and were desperate to talk. My mother would stand back, light a cigarette, and listen. In the afternoons I was down on the floor behind the counter, doing my homework amid a jumble of assorted rifles, Evinrude motors, gold nuggets, and fur pelts, and I could overhear them.
One man in particular, named Dave, returned every few days to check on his silver candelabra. “I’ve got no use at all for it, but it was my mother’s,” he said.
“I’ll keep a hold on it,” my mother said. With him, she talked back and didn’t just listen. Their voices spun smoky threads that looped across to each other. I could tell she liked him. He was a bush pilot, and one day he invited her to go flying with him. He was wearing a red and black checked wool shirt and a black watch cap.
“I don’t like to fly,” my mother said. “I don’t even like flying dreams.”
“Why didn’t you go?” I asked later.
“I said why. I don’t like to fly.”
“How do you know you don’t? You’ve never done it. You could’ve tried it.”
She shrugged. “I just didn’t want to.”
Dave kept hanging around and my mother continued to talk with him, but she never invited him to our house and didn’t accept any of his invitations to go out. Secretly, I was glad. I wanted her to myself.
She asked me one night, “What do you think of him, Reva?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either. I wonder if a pilot is any more trustworthy than a trucker.”
Dave finally put up the money for the candelabra and didn’t return.
“You see what I mean?” she said. “He was a bolter all along.”
One evening we found ourselves eating Wheaties for dinner in our down jackets, the house too cold and the refrigerator near empty. My mother had always refused to do business with anyone who smelled of alcohol, and that had worked out well, but gradually she’d lost the heart to sell the pawn items out from under people at all, and that sent us over the edge.
She looked at me. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s time to get out the boxes.”
She nodded. “You and me, by the sea, huh?”
George and I go to L.A. as planned. We meet with Enedina where she works, in a modern house in a brushy canyon. Her employer answers the door all smiles and after the introductions, escorts us to the living room for the interview. I look around at the solid glass wall, cathedral ceiling, Oriental rugs, squishy soft sofas, and wonder whether Enedina, who lives in this house eight hours a day, is under the impression that me and George live in similar surroundings. If she were to know what kind of place we really live in, would she ever consent to letting us have her baby?
Enedina is short and dark-skinned with heavy black hair clipped in the back before it spills down her back, and she doesn’t look pregnant yet. She hunches forward in an easy chair without looking directly at us. Her discomfort only adds to my nervousness, but since George sits stiffly without saying anything, it’s left up to me to get a conversation going.
I plunge in. “We would like your baby so much, but are you sure you want to give it up to us?”
“Yes, I very sure,” says Enedina to her knees.
I ask whether she has any other children. Yes, she has three children who are living now with an aunt in her village. Is she sure her husband would not accept the baby? Oh yes, she’s sure. Does she want to ask anything about me and George? Does she want the baby brought up Catholic? Because me and George aren’t Catholic. We aren’t exactly anything at all. No, she doesn’t have any questions and she doesn’t care what religion we have.
I tell her I want her to think about it, and we will too, before making any final arrangement. We’ll come back in a month. She nods.
On the I-5 going back home, I think about what a bad housekeeper I am, and how I never get up before nine, only taking jobs that let me sleep late in the morning, which is quite limiting: what will the baby say to that? I think of all the times I forget to buy milk and eggs and bread and don’t discover it till one in the morning, when it’s too late, and how our refrigerator, if not empty, is often full of liquidy green unidentifiable things. I have two overdue parking tickets. Once I went on a camping trip and forgot my shoes. I can’t unpack those boxes. How will a baby survive me?
“George, I’m going to make a terrible mother. The baby will get lint and those dust—what do you call them, devils? rabbits?—all over itself when it starts to crawl. I’ll forget to put galoshes on it when it rains, and it’ll get pneumonia.”
“I’ll help you clean up real good. I’ll help with everything,” says George.
I stare out the window at the low, bare, brown hills going by.
“How come you didn’t have any questions, George?”
“I thought you handled everything fine, honey. I had nothing to add.”
I know the real reason is he’s shy. How will that play out with a baby, a father scared to open his mouth?
“I don’t know, George. I don’t know if we can do this. Maybe we’re not cut out to be parents.”
George takes his hand from the steering wheel and grasps mine. “We can do it, Reva. We’ve got months to get ourselves ready. Don’t worry, I’m going to be right there helping you all along the way.”
Then it’s fine: I can feel the warm motherhood welling inside me. George is so reassuring, so patient and so kind. A friend of mine asked me once, “Reva, are you planning to leave George? Is that why you never unpack the boxes?” The question startled me, made me doubt myself, but now I’m certain I will never leave him.
Back at our apartment, we find twelve messages on the machine from my mother. “Reva, where are you? I told you I needed you… Reva, please come, dear. Please help me… Reva?… Reva, you’re still not there?… Reva?… “Reva, my baby, what’s happened to you?”
We listen, motionless. It’s what I’ve been dreading for the last few days, though I’ve tried not to think about it.
I deserted my mother once. Refused to take her phone calls, refused to visit her. I’d dropped out of San Francisco State, married and divorced a disc jockey, and was doing drugs. I blamed her and her unstable ways for the mess I was making of my life.
One day, tripping in a friend’s back yard, I was watching a duck waddle around, eating and shitting endlessly, going in circles first with its head bobbing up and down, then its tail. All afternoon I watched it until I had a revelation: I didn’t want to be like that duck for the rest of my life, just eating and shitting and going in circles.
I needed to get out of San Francisco, start anew. Like old times, and there was one obvious person to set off with at my side.
I knocked on her door. I couldn’t remember when the last time I’d been over was.
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” she said.
“It’s all your fault,” I said.
“What’s all my fault?”
“That I’m a mess.”
She looked hurt. “I bought you a prom dress. I worked my ass off for it.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“Are you high again?” She peered at me.
“No, I’m straight for once.”
Then I noticed how she winced with pain as she sat down at the kitchen table, and again when she got up to take the whistling tea kettle off the stove. How long had this been going on? I saw how her face had taken on a fierce look, pinched and sharpened, with two deep furrows between her eyes.
“Hey, I’m fine. I’ve got some good miles on me yet,” she said in response to my shocked expression.
She was getting Social Security as well as a small pension from the Longshoreman’s Union, where she’d worked as a dispatcher since moving from Alaska. She assured me that her life was very satisfying: bingo games, a library membership—she paused, frowning as she searched for more.
“I’ve got a plan,” I said. “It’s time to get out the boxes.”
She balked. “I don’t know what to make of you anymore. You’ve changed so much.”
It took me several days to convince her. She admitted to some creaks and twinges in her joints, and I decided we should go to Albuquerque where the dry climate might help her. “Land of enchantment! What could be more perfect!” I enthused. She was reluctant to leave the coast, but in the end she agreed.
I took a job as a medical receptionist and rented a small house for my mother and myself near Old Town. I loved Albuquerque, but my mother hated it. After deserting her, I’d taken her to a place that made her miserable.
“It snows here,” she complained. “And if it’s not snowing, there’s dust and sand everywhere. The air quality stinks, it’ll probably give me asthma. And look at this, look at these vegetables, all wilted by the time they get here from California. You can’t get anything fresh here. Frozen fish! There’s no bingo night for senior citizens either.”
“Sure there is, Mom. You haven’t bothered to go look for it.”
For a whole year, she refused to leave the house.
I felt stuck. Sometimes, after my mother went to bed, I snuck off to a nearby bar, a classy one with nice clientele, and that’s where I met Loren. We got to talking. He said he was a sculptor and lived in a two-hundred-year-old converted adobe church, where the nave served as his studio and the chancel the kitchen and the choir balcony a loft bedroom. We talked about astronauts (he was making an abstract sculpture of one), the peace movement, and Pueblo fertility dances, and then he invited me to come see his church. Here is a high-brow, classy man, I thought, belonging to such a different world from mine, who can lead me out of the mess I’ve made and away from that waddling duck. I should add that he was years older than me, a mature man with gray hair, and I was flattered by his attentions.
A few months later I moved into the church. I found an apartment nearby for my mother.
“The great artist,” my mother called Loren sarcastically. She said with his long torso and short legs he looked like a spider and his sculptures did too. She refused to come over, so I had to make frequent visits to check up on her. On and on she would rattle about how lonely and bored she was, couldn’t I stop by more often. “That Loren, he prevents you, doesn’t he,” she said. “He’s a mistake, that one. He’ll do you no good. You’ll see someday, when it will be too late.”
Loren didn’t like my mother any more than she liked him and resented all the time I spent with her. “You let her run all over you,” he said. “Why do you put up with her?”
I bristled and explained that though she may be an old biddy now, there was a time she’d bolstered the spirits of tough old guys in Alaska. She’d worked hard to support us. Now that she could no longer get about easily on her own, it was difficult for her to make friends, I said, overlooking the fact that she’d never really had friends. How could I turn my back on her?
One afternoon I came home from work and went up to the bedroom to change clothes while Loren welded in his studio below. I hadn’t gone to my mother’s for a few days, and was worried about her, so I stood at the balcony balustrade and shouted down that I was going to go cook Mom’s dinner and eat with her.
“What’s that?” Loren had to turn off his welder, and I repeated myself.
“Again?” he yelled. “Who’s going to cook my dinner?”
“There’s leftovers you can heat up.”
“Why can’t she ever come over here to eat, not that she’s good company.”
“She doesn’t like it over here. You know that.”
“Is that so.” Loren put down the welder and walked over to a spot just below me. “It’s me or her, Reva, that’s what it’s come to. If she needs your help every minute she belongs in a nursing home. You better start looking for one.”
So there it was. My mother was right: he was another bolter when the going got tough. A tremor rolled through me, blurring my vision, flattening my heart, pinning my feet to the floor. I became aware of holes in everything; my eyes two holes, my mouth a hole, and Loren a tiny figure standing in a huge hole. And then I jumped right into that hole, hurling myself into the emptiness to replace it with my body, trying to fill it, to leap free of all the heavy emptiness. For a brief moment, flying headlong through the air, I felt light and burdenless as a cut-loose balloon.
I heard a scream. I didn’t know whether it was mine or Loren’s. I’d landed on top of him and broken all his ribs.
I waited till he got out of the hospital to leave him. My mother was like another person, she was so happy.
“Let’s go to Seattle. I miss the ocean air so much, Reva, and Seattle is home. I want to go home again.” Every day, she talked about Seattle.
“But I don’t know anyone there, and I don’t want to start all over again. I’m tired of it,” I said. Nor did I want to tie my life to hers again. But I would never put her in a nursing home.
“I want to go back to San Francisco and maybe finish up at S.F. State.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll be fine in Seattle on my own.”
I gave up arguing. Seattle, after all, was close enough to drive up to now and then.
I found her an affordable rooming-house there, with a kind landlady, and arranged for a social worker to take her case and see to weekly sessions of physical therapy.
Back in San Francisco, before I’d made it back to school, I met George. He had a square, pudgy face; serious, puzzled eyes as if he were always wondering about something; bushy hair on the top of his head that made me want to stroke it. Our first date he brought flowers, offering them shyly. He was twenty years younger than me, sweet and innocent.
My mother has no family (except for mean old Aunt Rose, and who knows if she’s still alive) other than me. From the beginning, George has always understood my obligation. It’s what he’s learned from his family, who’ve gone through tough times themselves: that some people never get a break, that you have to stick together in this hard world.
Lying in bed the night we get back from L.A., I look at the dark shape of the ziggurat across the room and think about my possessions floating inside the tiered and slanted blocks of space, and I describe some of the items to George—the old hippie clothes, the window curtains, useless now, a Pueblo pot from New Mexico—as if unpacking and lifting them to the light and shaking off the dust. I talk about where I will put each thing when we finally get our Victorian flat someday, and he listens and nods.
I say, “I have to go to her.”
George sighs. “You do whatever you have to do, honey.”
In Seattle the landlady has to let me into the room because my mother is unable to get out of bed and answer the door herself. The landlady has been bringing her water and food.
“But she hardly touches it,” she says on the way up the stairs, “and she scared away that nice young social worker who was trying to help her, told her to beat it.” Tcch, tcch, she clucks her tongue.
When she opens the door, a foul smell hits me, the smell of mold and urine. A grayish light percolates through the dirty panes of the bay window. Though my mother used to be a neat housekeeper, clothes and newspapers litter the floor and furniture. An ashtray overflows by the bedside.
“Hello dear. Welcome to my boudoir,” she croaks from the bed across the room.
Her face is gray and sunken, all nose and hollow eyes with a crinkled, parched mouth.
“You don’t look so good, Mom.”
“It’s because she never eats. Isn’t that so, you naughty girl,” says the landlady, who has entered the room behind me.
Mom says, “Oh shut up. Go away and leave us alone.”
“My my, what a temper,” warbles the landlady, backing out.
“I hate that old bag,” Mom says.
I laugh. “You naughty girl,” I mimic the landlady.
My mother smells fetid like something rotting. I try not to breathe too obviously through my mouth, but she catches it right away.
“As if your shit never stunk. I changed all your stinky diapers, don’t forget.”
“I’m sorry. But why did you send the social worker away? You can’t live alone in this condition, Mom.”
“I hated her. I don’t like strangers around me, and I won’t be put in a home either. I won’t, I won’t. They come in and talk to me like I was a baby. Good girl this, bad girl that.”
Tears spring into her eyes but they don’t fall.
“Oh Mom. You’ve got to face what’s happening to you. You’ve got to get help. What does your doctor say? When was the last time you saw him?”
She thrusts a twisted claw from under the sheet and pokes at my arm, attempting to grasp it.
“You take care of me Reva. Please.”
All the long drive up, I’ve been trying to prepare for this moment. I’ve asked myself, if I don’t take care of my own mother, then what kind of mother will I be?
“Please,” she says again.
“First things first. Right now I’m going to bathe you and clean up the bed.”
I go into the small bathroom and start the water running in the tub, noting the film of yellow crust I’ll need to clean out later. I think about how to get her to the doctor’s, what agencies to call for a wheelchair, for another physical therapist, what else I’ll have to do right away. I don’t think beyond that for now. I’m trying to draw together all my strength, to steel myself.
I return to the bed and pull back the sheet. Her gnarled legs lie there like the old dying roots of a tree.
“Just you and me by the sea. Remember that?” she says.
“Yes, I remember. I sure do.”
Putting my arms under her knees and shoulder blades, I brace myself for the weight.