II. A Very Kind Mailman
I’m an Aquarius, like Tad and my grandpa--the two the most headstrong people in the world. Except for my mother, a Scorpio, the deadly sign. A Scorpio was a force of nature, said Will, who came into our lives during this year. Will was the mail carrier, a bandy-legged, rumpy bald man who trudged to our doorstep every day at 3:30, just as I came home from school. Will had a long, mournful face and the darkest, saddest eyes I’d ever seen. He was Indian. And a Capricorn, which is an amiable sign and as far from Scorpio as you can get. Sometimes I sat on the stoop of our low-rising split-level just to waylay him because I felt so lonely. Will was sage, in his way, and he seemed to know before I said a word how I was feeling that day. “Why so down in the mouth?” he cried, taking one look at me. “When are you going to play for me?” He knew from my mother that I played violin, a rare, impossible instrument, it seemed to him, and he was eager to hear this marvel. He usually appeared with a ring of dark beard around his chin, his brow smooth and unlined, and he had very dark eyes, maybe black. He was sweating from the weight of his load strapped across his back. His two-wheel hauler waited at the curb like a baby stroller. The parcels of mail neatly bundled up in rubber bands: he knew just how to organize his heavy daily haul and he’d get very snippy at the central mail people when they messed up the addresses on his route. The dark ring of beard gave a clue to his own mood; I knew that less of a beard meant he would be more chatty than usual, with more time to sit and talk, while his dark pirate look revealed he was irritated by ill-sorted mail with wrong addresses.
“Nothing,” I said, despondently.
“Oh nothing? You think I believe that? What happened?” he insisted in his sing-song fashion. He was very knowledgeable about our neighborhood because everyone told him their problems and secrets. “The kids are mean to you? Oh these middle-school kids can be vicious--I’ve heard about the things they do to each other.”
“We had a bomb scare,” I told him.
“Now that’s a terrible waste.”
“It happens toward the end of the school year. The seniors go crazy. They throw their tennis shoes over the phone wires in front of the school--have you seen those shoes hanging?”
He had. He sat with me. His hero was Mohandas Gandhi and he quoted him often. Gandhi had pushed the British out of India so that the Indians could govern their country on their own, and he hadn’t used force or violence. Though Will moved briskly and with purpose when plodding from house to house, he always stopped to talk to me. Will was an only child to immigrant parents. He grew up on the other side of the county with his single mother, as his father had died. They used to run a small kiosk off of River Road--a newspaper and tobacco shop in the Old World fashion. He had not enjoyed a happy childhood, I gathered. His parents were traditional Hindus and Will had been married in a traditional fashion, meaning that his marriage had been arranged by the families when he was much younger and he barely knew the girl. And it had been a disaster. His wife was gone--I didn’t want to ask. Will drove a battered old Ford (even more unsightly than our own baby blue hatchback) and lived somewhere north of us. I imagined he lived alone. Besides Jason Donas, I wondered if he was my only friend.
“You had to wait outside boiling in the sun?” he asked, lowering his voice.
“Yeah, but it was okay. We had fifth period. French,” I said.
“You’re learning French? I bet your mother speaks French.”
“She does. She wanted to take me to Paris.”
“She will, she will.”
“Mere in French is mother.”
“Also sea,” said Will, thoughtfully.
“You know French?” I cried.
He winked. Replied enigmatically, “Cousin, I’ve lived a little.”
Then he was on his way. He seemed so knowledgeable for a mailman. Okay, that’s not a fair statement, and I never spoke to a mailman before except to say Thank you and Here, I’ll take it. Why would I assume that mail carriers can’t be smart or learned? Will quoted Gandhi, who defended the poor people in his country and even the Untouchables: “No man loses his freedom except through his own weakness.” Will read books, and maybe even he was as smart as my dad, in his way. Will would hand me mail addressed to my father and give a discreet smile of understanding. I kept my father’s mail in a little tin kindling box by the door. On his rounds with his stubbled chin and bald head, Will wore a matching official jacket and pants and sometimes a cap. When my father hadn’t been headed to work in the city--wearing his thick glasses, a navy-blue jacket and trousers that were both dark material but didn’t quite match--he donned a proper Reserves uniform that wasn’t unlike what Will wore. I sometimes marveled at the similarity. When I spoke to Will I missed my dad more.
Call me alarmist but things were getting worse around here.
Mom worked in an office every day, a weekly newspaper in Middletown where she had to read over all the type before it went to press Tuesday night. Her job was to correct the writers’ grammar mistakes: sometimes she told me about them and we shared rare moments of temple-jabbing glee. The travel writers made the worst howlers, she said, and the knitting column gave her spasms in the brain, while the news writers were the most gracious. At least they could spell Ticonderoga or Islamabad or some such. My mother was good at her job but she started losing faith in the news, scoffing and throwing papers up in the air when she had to bring the work home. “This is baloney!” she’d cry, and then the work didn’t get done. She was growing tired of having to give the official explanation for her husband’s disappearance--MIA means Missing in Action--and she groused about the stock solicitous responses she received by well-wishers: “I’m so sorry,” people would say helplessly, stunned when they heard, staring at her, blinking: “What can we do?” She bit her lip and swallowed an angry reply.
By spring it had begun getting harder and harder to get her going. She used to like to go to the candidates’ debates in our town: there were always trustees she was supporting, and fliers to disseminate from house to house, and once she even held a reception for one of the mayoral candidates in our house (he lost). Sometimes she enlisted me in her efforts, which was fine. I didn’t mind walking from door to door with her and hearing gossip about the neighbors. But she had grown lethargic like our aging cat who preferred to sleep all day; Carlo ate too much and sometimes he even forgot he had already eaten and threw up and started again--not normal behavior for an animal, come on! My mom would only get out of bed once I brought her a cup of coffee: she had painstakingly instructed me how to dash a half-cup of ground coffee into the French pression maker, add boiling water, then use the plunger to push the grinds down, allowing the liquid to rise. You had to be careful not to push it down too quickly or too hard or else the hot water would spurt in your face. This was the only way to make coffee in our house, and she was very particular, having learned the right way, she claimed, from her Swiss roommate at Oberlin back in the day.
She seemed glad enough to see me when I entered her dark, shuttered room in the morning, where she’d be lying on her back staring at the ceiling like a cadaver. All she needed was a lily in her clutched hands. I’d carefully place her coffee cup and saucer on the bedside table without a spill. She made a place for me by the bed, patting the space, and I’d sit down for a moment, though her gaze, when she turned to me, was so raw and sad that I couldn’t stay. Plus I had to get Tad ready. He was grumpy and slow to dress and eat, and if I pushed him too fast he’d start to howl and soon he’d be lying in Mom’s bed with her, refusing to budge. The two of them, unbelievable. So then she had to get up, and we managed to get out of the house before we were all late for the bell.
It worried me how sad she was, and that she wasn’t moving fast like she used to, as a Scorpio, driving her car. Where had her demonic driving energy gone? She sat for long periods of time with a book that fell open on her lap. She forgot to turn the pages: if she was pretending to be reading she wasn’t trying very hard. The sad truth was that I worried more about her than she did about me. I don’t know how she knew I’d make it to school every day, and not try to sneak out of the house wearing something I knew she didn’t approve of--we used to have terrible fights about slouchy hip-hop jeans that showed my undies or sport shorts made of synthetic shiny material and emblazoned with team colors like the maroon-and-gold Buckeye Blazers. She hated those rubber shorts, my tomboy apparel, while I loved them! She figured I had stopped wanting to go out in those and she was right. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t be more daring like the other girls in my class, who showed off their new blossoming chests with little lacy Ts and wife beaters? My mother didn’t even see me, and so it kind of didn’t count how I looked.
Entrenched in her sorrowful thoughts, lying, watchful, on her good side, listening to the house’s noises, the cat’s creeping around to check the status of the food bowl every hour, the gnawing of the termites, the strange nocturnal beastie sounds, the whispering of the trees in the back--harkening for any change or movement, my mother lay still as a statue. And in the morning she was stiff and exhausted and too absorbed in her own thoughts to worry about me. Did you know that your hair grows longer on the side you sleep on most often? Well, her hair was seriously dragging. What had all that tense wakefulness brought her in the morning? No change--just the fierce unforgiving sunlight that she blocked out by thick, drawn curtains. She called Tad, rapping softly on the wall: “Come, sweetie, come here!” He dropped what he was doing and reclined in his clean school clothes next to her, the two of them clutching each other like the world was about to end, anxious and fearful that the trees were dying. I was too big to snuggle next to her, too big by then, and anyway I couldn’t sit still and I didn’t want to.
My mother was sneaky: she could walk around the house in the softest way and I never knew where she was or what she was up to. In contrast, I sounded like a crash of rhinos, and she never failed to remind me of it. She said I should learn how to walk on the tips of my toes, like a cat. She had taken many ballet classes as a girl--Grace! Poise!--and she had tried to enlist me as well but I could not get past the idiotic first position. I couldn’t bother with the pink tutus! At night I heard my mother pacing from one room to the next, talking lowly on the phone. By her tone I knew she wasn’t talking to Grandpa. She had been speaking with Grandpa more frequently because of various tests Grandma had had to undergo--tests for checking cancer, such as MRIs and ultrasounds. She’d had tests for memory, too, as she had grown forgetful (maybe because of having to keep track of all the tests) and my grandpa had begun to worry about her. My mother would shout on the phone: why make his wife endure these humiliating tests? Mom usually ended up yelling at Grandpa, who had strong opinions about everything, being an Aquarius. He railed about politics, about her not bringing us to see them, about her lowly job, or rather her lowly salary. He couldn’t understand why his brilliant daughter wasn’t chief editor by now. What had happened to her ambition? What good was all that expensive education doing? She did not appreciate his meddling, and she told him so. They argued. They hung up on each other.
No, she couldn’t be speaking to Grandpa. By her softer tone I figured she was probably talking to Uncle Darnell, who lived in Texas. They were close, the two siblings, though they lived so far apart and she didn’t entirely approve of his life. He lived on a vast ranch with vineyards and Arabian horses and successive wives, one more glamorous than the next, though my mother never warmed to those ladies. What was wrong with Cheyenne, I wanted to know, and wasn’t Luella nice? “Ha!” my mother scoffed ungenerously. “Not young enough, apparently!” My mom never said anything good about our dear Uncle Darnell’s wives, as if it pained her that someone so nice as he was could be so shallow.
It was something about the way she spoke in hushed tones when she was on the phone and pacing restlessly that alerted me. It was pretty late, considering she went to bed when we did. Moreover, she had started dropping things. She used to throw stuff out the bathroom window, back in my childhood, when Daddy was still here and she was angry all the time, maybe because Daddy was absent a lot. She would fly into fits of rage, then just as quickly they subsided. We gathered the pieces of luggage in the shrubbery the next morning. We shrugged apologetically to the neighbors. Now it was dropping things, as if she wasn’t all entirely there. Absent. I listened and watched her. She was the one who taught me how to watch secretly, like a detective, or a good writer. A good writer doesn’t let anything get by her, she’d say, poking me in the ribs to get my attention when we were hunched over an English paper I had to write on To Kill a Mockingbird. (“Flight from Bigotry.”) A good writer is sneaky. I learned from her. I read her diary--okay, I picked it up and tried to decipher her handwriting but I couldn’t figure out a word! She should take a handwriting class: the grown woman wrote in chicken scratchings.
Then I broke into her email and read her messages--once I did. I know it’s wrong, an invasion of her privacy and so forth, she told me sternly when she found out. Locked me in my room to transcribe whole pages of sheet music for the afternoon. Grounded me. But I had to do it, even if I knew it was wrong--sometimes you do have to make that choice in this crummy life, as James Cagney might snarl. (My mom and I used to watch all the old movies on afternoon TV.) I had to know what was what with her, and it was easy to do because she kept the same password since before I was born. She wrote it down on her desk blotting because she couldn’t remember it, and her computer was an ancient dinosaur that took about an hour to read photographs. So one afternoon when she wasn’t home from work yet I put in her password she had scribbled everywhere, Summer, pretty dumb and kind of sad. A longing for more glorious times, poor Mom. And the thing started grinding and making absurd gearing-up noises. I thought for a minute I had broken the computer--then suddenly I was in! I had to know what she was up to and I found out pretty fast.
My mother was plotting a flight.
“Coming soon,” she wrote to a certain BlueStone. “I have the capers and the rivets. We don’t need gas. A few things here still to tie up. Very soon--ready.” And, incredibly, one cryptic response from BlueStone: “Am counting the strands.”
And nothing more.
Now, this was truly troubling stuff, not leastways because I had no idea what she meant by capers and rivets--I know capers are those gross little hard pickled things you sometimes put in pasta sauce or on pizza (Tad, bizarrely, ate them like candy), and rivets are used to weld metal sheets together, such as the rivets used on the Titanic that were found to be faulty, thus leading to the drowning death of a thousand-plus people. But counting strands? I instantly thought of pearls: strands of pearls in a necklace, I don’t know why. My mother didn’t have pearls--not the kind of precious, old-fashioned jewelry she would keep, preferring as she did beads and stones and ethnic stuff, which she bought occasionally (had my daddy bought her jewelry?) but never actually wore, maybe because she never went anywhere. But strands were also small particles and grains, such as sand on a beach--a strand is also a seashore, such as strolling along the strand, the English might say--the entire ocean floor was made up of grains of sand. You couldn’t count the sand in the sea, could you? What you could do is unravel strands of fabric, from knitted sweaters and maybe rugs. People who made them probably counted the strands. But strands were also what human hair was made up of, though counting strands of hair seemed creepy, unless you didn’t have anything else to do.
Anyway you looked at it, it was curious stuff, indicating, as Charles Dickens might say, an untoward intimacy between these two--my mother must have been having an affair and was planning to flee with BlueStone, whoever the heck that was. And where exactly did she think she was going without gasoline--to the moon? What did she still need to tie up? Maybe those things she needed to tie up were us, Tad and me. She would tie us up and send us down the Nile, without a dad and now without a mother. Thanks, Mom!
The next day the message was deleted and I was thrown in the dungeon for the afternoon to transcribe J.S. Bach’s “Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude.” I demanded to know whom she had been writing. She told me to occupy myself with my own onions--a French expression that means mind your own beeswax. Too late, I was on to her.
Now I knew because Will had told me that the worst thing a mother can do is disappear. I think the strict rules and regulations of the very traditional Indian family prompted the flight of his own wife once upon a time, but I can’t be sure and I won’t ask him. But I knew Tad would be the one who suffered most from my mother’s disappearing trick. He was younger, still needing her to wipe his shitty bottom, unable to sleep at night without her singing to him--okay, I used to be the same way but you’ve got to buck up by the time you’re eleven. He was upset whenever she left to go anywhere by herself. Was she coming back? the poor kid asked, without fail, standing heartbroken at the front window of our split-level, staring at the trees just bursting with green until she returned. She had been going out more often of late. I would have minded (not like poor Tad) and been irritated by her absences if she didn’t return always with grocery bags full of treats. Bags bearing the name of an unfamiliar store--this was supposed to throw us off the scent? Parcels full of new kinds of cereals, rices, nuts, and yogurt. Okay, so she was bribing us. She took out the items one by one and beamed at me hopefully. I scowled, moved away to my lair down the hall. Tad latched himself on to her and wouldn’t let go. The two of them, sunk in a chair, face to face, limbs intertwined absurdly. Two cooing doves.
No, the name of the store was not BlueStone.