All This at Once
All This at Once
We lived in a town half-abandoned. The oldest part of town had been empty for over a hundred years. There seems to be no reason why our town was built sidled up to an abandoned one. But there we were. The new half of town was not what you could call fantastic, or original, and it had not grown in almost twenty years. I remember seeing construction when I was very young. I used to fantasize about it.
Geoff and I rented a little house from an old lady I imagined as Mother Hubbard. We had not met her when we moved in, just her son, in a parking lot where we signed in triplicate and he gave us keys. She was alive, we knew, in a nursing home that overlooked the dead half of town. The son told us our rent kept her there. Geoff paid one month and I the next. On and on, we wondered, until she died? We had no real plans.
Living in Mother Hubbard’s house was my grim fairy tale.
We had all her furniture, her linens, dinnerware. We never moved her rugs, pillows or the woven art hung along the walls. Photographs of Mother Hubbard, her family, watched us.
Every day I tried to respect her. I put the blue glasses with the blue glasses, kept the napkins lined up and everything as organized as I was capable.
It was not our home. We were never comfortable.
I worked in the billing department of our local government. A mess of paperwork needed organization, and as I began to chase invoices through stages between unpaid and paid the voices of accountants and small-town lawyers began to tinkle like silver behind me.
The job was not necessarily a complicated one except it required concentration and a keen eye to spot ridiculous discrepancies. Satisfying, though, was opening the heavy file cabinets with one strong sweep.
That summer and that house, I’d begun thinking, those decisions were wrong.
Charles, a tax attorney and my boss, answered his phone. He crooked the receiver into his shoulder and sat in such a way I knew he was learning of bad news. He paused, nodded, and set the phone down.
“Sweet Jesus,” he said. I stared from across the room. “My mother’s best friend died.” People turned toward him.
My phone buzzed. Somehow I knew it was Geoff.
“They took the cat lady,” Geoff told me. His voice was excited. She was a woman who lived across the street. “They covered her in a sheet so I couldn’t see her face,” he said. “She died sometime in the night. Old Man Murphy found her this morning.”
Geoff and I were neighbor-watchers. Old Man Murphy lived directly across us, the cat lady to his left. We watched the neighbors as much as we could. We made up stories about them, knowing we were wrong. I knew if they made up stories about us, they’d be right.
I felt hollow, thinking that as I’d walked past the cat lady’s house on my way to work this morning, she was in there, dead. Of course I hadn’t remembered paying attention to her small turquoise house. Maybe I hadn’t even looked at it. Her house was simply there because it was, the way a mother’s love is supposed to be.
Geoff told me he went into the yard and heard Old Man Murphy talking to the police. Old Man Murphy told them a cat had torn feathers from one of the cat lady’s pillbox hats. That was when he realized something was wrong. He followed a trail of hat feathers. He said he went in there to find her dead on her big velvet bed, fuchsia blankets kicked off to one side.
“Old Man Murphy didn’t say all that!” I said.
Geoff insisted he did.
“What an image,” I said. I watched Charles in his office. He made another phone call. He spoke with his hands cupped over his mouth. My heart swelled; it beat in my throat. Somehow I thought of my father.
“Geoff,” I said.
“They brought the fire truck,” he said. “Why would they need the fire truck?”
“Go talk to him.”
“Old Man Murphy.”
The phone hissed with silence. “I don’t think I will,” he said.
“You should,” I said.
“I have to go to work,” he said. “I’m late.” He trimmed trees. We were barely doing anything with our lives.
That evening I was slippery with emotion, cautious. I got into Mother Hubbard’s bathtub and stayed there. I rearranged my legs, listening to the water slack against the side of the tub. The sky reddened slowly before it darkened. Eventually Geoff opened the front door and yelled my name.
“Work is a beast,” he said. This was his first job.
I heard him walk through the living room, climb Mother Hubbard’s narrow staircase and open the bathroom door. He stepped in and smiled down at me. I tried to cover myself but my hands were small, the water invisible.
The cat lady’s house stayed noticeably dark. Cats moved in trees. Tree-fallen pink buds were withered and brown in the gutters.
“All those cats,” I said. Geoff ate. He had a doily from Mother Hubbard’s china cabinet on his knee as a napkin.
I stared out the window at the turquoise house, while Geoff watched TV. Old women die all the time. They are supposed to.
I telephoned my father. He answered on the first ring.
“Dad,” I said. He lived in town in the house I grew up in. The world of my childhood was still the only half-dead world I knew.
“Well,” he said. “Well, well.”
“I was just wondering, Dad,” I said.
Suddenly I didn’t know what I was about to say. I thought for a second I would, but the feeling vanished.
“If you’ve heard from Mom?” I was certain this wasn’t it. This wasn’t even important anymore.
“Oh, honey,” he said, his breath flooding the receiver. “I guess you are old enough to know I gave up a while ago.”
Words flew out of me. “I have a government job,” I said. This was meant to sound funny, to show I’d grown up, but it was like a cold ring of water around my neck.
I heard ice in my father’s glass. Scotch.
“How’s your girlfriend?” I said.
“Well,” he said, “You’re my girlfriend.”
“Oh,” I said, “What’s that mean?”
“It means she left.”
“Why?” I said.
“Sweetie,” he said. The ice knocked lightweight bones in my ear. “There are some things you shouldn’t ask your father.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Well, I’ll call you later this week. I’ll make you some dinner.”
“That would be great, honey,” he said.
I hung up, what we’d said already gone.
My mother had bounced in and out of this half-abandoned place for as long as I could remember. If she was leaving she’d be preparing to come back and when she was there, leaving again was all over her face. It remained tense, this presence about her, the come and go.
Geoff slept easily beside me. Mother Hubbard’s chenille bedspread smoothed over my body like fabric chrome.
In the night I thought I heard the dry pop of pixie rifles and remembered boys I grew up with would go into the abandoned half of town to shoot rats. People called the abandoned half the Pioneer Village. It was falling apart, more each year. I remembered running there at night, down the dirt streets, between cheerless, empty and long-dead buildings. The Pioneer Village had a church, a main street, and several houses in a grid, a few falling-down barns out beyond it all. The wood leaned and creaked with sadness.
Running there at night, my young heart bounced ahead of me like a red ball. I tried to keep up with it. Sometimes I could.
That childhood feeling was something I remember having with me often, cold and warm like hope and hopelessness, mixed but also unmixed inside me. I remembered hiding under the kitchen table with my mother’s little longhaired dog. If I put both of my hands on it, it would turn its small ornamental face and bite me.
“Stop, Glory,” my mother told the dog. “Go to sleep.”
First she melted butter. Then she fried a circle of bologna until it flipped up like a boat. She filled the boat with mashed potatoes, sealed it with melted cheese, and set it in front of me in a shallow bowl pooled with gravy.
She fed me meals like this on the days she would leave.
The times she came back, I cooked for her. I didn’t know any better. My father worried about this. I created recipes. My little hands held measuring spoons, leveled flour. I cracked eggs earnestly. I tapped my teeth and thought: cumin?
I made beans and rice, meatballs with corn, cooked chicken in fruit juice under foil. I set the table formally, smiled carefully. My mother clutched her dog to her neck. I lit candles. My father paced hallways, grimacing.
“Not right, Diane,” he’d tell my mother. “This is not right.”
“I’m not telling her to cook,” she said. She stared at me neutrally, the food something warm and cautious between us. She picked at my food the way she examined things in sale bins, trying to find where they were cheap, where they would soon break.
Mother Hubbard’s house taught me my heart was bigger than I knew. It was fluttery and worried; my heart was something I could not control. How can a house teach this?
Cars drove past. Their headlights burned like enthusiasm, like mockery.
Geoff shifted in bed, pushed against me.
“Please,” he said, asleep. His eyes moved rapidly under his eyelids. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Let’s.” We were still children, but we would never admit this. We didn’t know what we wanted, how to go about seeking something we wanted. We just moved in together, got jobs, and hoped it was enough. I thought hope alone could manage itself. I thought I was an adult.
I did not go to the cat lady’s funeral. Why would I? I read the obituary aloud. Ms. Edina William Burns was born in this town, as were both her parents. She married young and lost her husband in the war, baked pastries for a living, had a twin sister somewhere who died earlier in the year.
“A real live wire,” Geoff said. He slapped my thighs and showed teeth. “Let’s have fun today,” he warned.
We drove past the funeral procession. People spread onto the sidewalk.
“There’s Charles,” I said. “My boss.” I watched my boss, holding his aged mother’s elbow. Her hair was thin, dyed the color of beef broth. Her mouth was tight and moth-gray.
“Look. Old Man Murphy,” Geoff said, pointing.
I waved. He made no recognition.
I put my fingertips on the glass.
I smiled at Geoff.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he said.
I found a plate with oval depressions in circles under Mother Hubbard’s sink. I assumed it was for serving deviled eggs, so I set to work making them. Geoff left me alone in the house. The furniture seemed vaguely alive.
I mashed yolks with mustard and mayonnaise, searched the closet spice rack for paprika. I found boxes of photographs, Christmas ornaments and antique baby clothes. I didn’t dig through them. I could have. I was afraid to unearth stories, especially as the eyes in photographs throughout the house were there, watching me judge myself.
I found a box with delicate handwriting that read: Joelle’s Wedding 1927. A dress inside? I knew I was not allowed to touch it. Yet, who cared if I did or did not touch the dress? If I put it on?
I found a heavy gilded Bible, the leather curling off, showing hand-tied binding underneath. We had a Bible like it in my house. My mother came back to town for it once.
“Yikes,” my mother said when she saw me come out my father’s house. This was one of the last times she visited. I was finishing junior high. My father’s eyes behind me were sharp and dark. I felt bad for him. I sat on my hands on a concrete stair. “Almost a woman,” my mother said to me. “My my.”
She shadowed her face with her hands. I couldn’t see her eyes.
“Good people have strong feelings, too,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“That’s why I chase things down,” she said. She moved her hands and I saw her face, her muscular little grin. “You forgive me for it, don’t you?”
“What?” I said.
“Oh Christ,” she said. “No you don’t.” She faced the horizon. A slice of white moon hung in the daylight. The abandoned half of town was just past the hill of flesh-colored houses, the neon gas station.
“That’s enough,” my father said. “You’re a heartbreaker, Diane. A goddamn heartbreaker.”
My mother took something from her purse. She sprayed her neck with water from an atomizer. “Sure is hot,” she said.
“Sure is,” said my father. He winked at me, laughed. I laughed too, because nothing was funny.
“Do I get the Bible?” she asked.
“No,” said my father and we laughed and laughed.
Geoff stepped through the kitchen.
“You’re here,” I said. I put my hands in the pockets of Mother Hubbard’s hand-stitched apron.
He looked at me as though his eyes were painted on, as though I hadn’t just spoken, went down the hall to the bathroom. The door closed with a soft wooden knock. When would we admit this was wrong? Why not now?
I put the deviled eggs on their serving platter, carried it to the dining room table. The eyes in the photographs watched me. I sighed and stared back. Oh hell, I thought, here I am.
The doorbell rang.
I straightened my spine. Doorbell? I’d never heard it before.
I opened the door to three old women. They looked through me into the house.
“May we come in?”
I watched their clean shoes step over the threshold.
“The kitchen?” they asked.
I made a wild sweeping gesture. I watched them move through the living room and sit in three chairs at the kitchen table. I studied their fine necks, withered hands and gently combed hair.
“We know Margaret,” one of them said, exhausted.
Margaret must be Mother Hubbard.
“Oh!” I cried. “Would you like some tea?”
They shook their heads, stared at me so fixedly I wanted to shake them off.
“Coffee?” I said. “I made deviled eggs!” I put the platter in the center of the table.
“Margaret is a dear friend,” said one.
“Of course,” I said. “You grew up with her?” I turned to leave for pickles and a pitcher of milk. The second woman held my face with her eyes. I sat.
“We think it would be appropriate if you introduced yourself to her.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You are sleeping in her bed.”
“Right,” I said. “I know. There was an ad in the paper. I rented this house by answering an ad.”
The old women made clucking noises.
“Margaret’s ungrateful son put that ad in the paper.”
“I see,” I said. My elbows on the table, I pressed my palms to my eyes until I saw red, a kaleidoscope of stars. “I’ll visit her,” I said.
“Good,” they said, “good girl.”
“Did you know Edina Burns?” I said.
“Of course,” they said.
“You grew up with her too?”
They didn’t answer. I held the door for them, a guilty hostess.
I took the platter of deviled eggs into the street to feed the cats, but didn’t see a single one.
Old Man Murphy sat asleep on his porch.
“Do you want deviled eggs?” I asked him. He didn’t answer.
I saw Geoff naked through Mother Hubbard’s windows, listening to music on headphones, his penis bouncing happily as he went up and down the stairs.
Work became difficult. My eight-hour shift faced me as an impenetrable amount of time. How had I done it before? I sat, filing paperwork in a cold marble office. My hands rang with wonder and dread. I felt life trying to resume but knew changes were waiting for me. Newness perched somewhere. I looked for it, did not know what it would look like, where it would be.
Voices sprang forth, wooden doors in the courthouse opened and shut, the red hand on the clock spun. I tucked into my desk. Charles chatted amicably on the phone. I thought of him at the funeral with his gray-mouthed mother.
“You don’t say!” he said. “All this at once?” His grin almost too big, he began laughing as though nothing at all ever mattered.
I went to Mrs. Burns’ house. I was not surprised to find her back door unlocked. I brought cat food, but someone had taken the cats. Inside the house the air was hushed humid and calm, soft as skin.
I stood in the living room, wanting to be overwhelmed. I breathed the ache of dried cat urine. Everything was orderly, belonging to no one. The newspaper said she had no family left.
The kitchen, a hallway, the dining room. Up the stairs, the bedroom. I stared at the bed where Old Man Murphy found her. Someone had been here, made the bed and rearranged the pillows. Why would someone do that?
Along her dresser were eye creams, lotions, dark lipsticks and hand mirrors. Bowls of jewelry lined the mantle, a rack of feathered hats, a calendar from 1970.
The absence of Mrs. Burns was bright, like cold light. Nothing was here. I spun circles in the room. Endings don’t happen. It was something I’ve never thought about.
The next day was warmer than usual.
Vaultless blue skies arrowed outward from where I stood for thousands and thousands of miles, reeling away and away and away.
I visited Mother Hubbard. The grounds of the nursing home had flowers growing in complicated circular patterns. Windows shone silver in the daylight, clouds mirrored across them.
A receptionist told me Mother Hubbard’s last name, where to find her.
My heart stiffened as elevator doors closed. As I rode to the third floor, something in me geared up, a jerky ascension as though I were rising to the very top of my youth so I could look down.
The doors opened. The abandoned half of town lay beyond the hallway on my left. To my right streetlights and fast food restaurants, cars driving between yellow lines.
I found Mother Hubbard rigid in a hard-backed chair in her room, small as a child. Her white hair was pinned over her ears in loops. Tender blue veins pulsed in her temples and neck up into her hairline.
“Hello,” I said.
She had long wrinkled earlobes. She looked through me, hands in her lap. Mother Hubbard had translucent fingernails polished into vivid ovals. One hand rose and swapped the air to wave me away.
I told her the house was wonderful, that I’d been meaning to visit, that Geoff and I were grateful.
I waited, gazed out the window at abandoned buildings.
“I’m living in your house,” I said again.
“You live in my house?” she said, her voice amazing, just a breath. “You live in my house? Are you married?”
“I am not,” I said.
“You live in sin in my house? You ugly girl.” She leaned forward and pinched my wrist. “Give me my house back,” she said. “You’re a whore, a child whore.”
I didn’t know how to apologize. I’d never really given one before. I didn’t even know which words to use. Sorry felt wrong and insincere. If I said it, I worried what it would sound like. I sat on the bed, facing abandoned buildings. It might have been a massacre that killed everybody off. Records might show pestilence, weather, but there were no records. No one knew what the original town was named.
“You’re just a child,” she said.
“I’m not,” I promised. “I’m an adult.”
She sighed and I smelled her breath. It smelled like the house.
“Margaret,” I said. “How did you get here?”
I held her cold hand and she yanked it away.
“Margaret,” I said, and wanted to climb inside her.
I reached the top of my youth right then. I know I did.
“Child whore,” she said. “Give me my house back.”
“I’ll be back,” I told her. I wasn’t sure if I would or not. I wanted to go back to her house. I wanted to be there, alone and ungrateful, surrounded by whole lives and histories that were never meant to include me. I’d be safe there, although not for long. This was almost the darker, real version of pretend I played as a girl, while my mother stayed gone. I wanted to go through Mother Hubbard’s things, find out how long it takes for a life to be lived and remain unfinished. I wanted, I wanted, I knew I wanted something.
I felt a tiny hover before the elevator floor began to carefully take me down.