Published previously at Michigan Quarterly Review
and in Swarm to Glory (Wiseblood Books, 2014)
I have some bad news.
My mother’s voice is as distinct as if she is standing next to me. She sounds matter-of-fact, appropriately stricken yet carrying on with a stiff upper lip. Sure of herself. Sure that this news is real, immutable, no one can take that from her—or her from her duty to present it. If I had started counting at a young age I might have known how many times I had heard these words in this tone issue from my mother’s mouth. But there are so many things I could know if I had started counting when I was young. How many kisses? How many men? How many orgasms? A few years ago I started keeping lists of books I had read, but I can never reclaim the thousands read before I began this documentation. I mourn the loss of my personal memories even more than I do the books—my failures to keep track—as if there is going to be an important court case in some parallel universe for which I will be unprepared. But evidence aside, I had enough experience to know that my mother’s news regards either a bizarre death or a break-up of a couple everyone thought would be together forever. Her favorite tragedies are those brought on by the victims themselves, the result of a character flaw. Oddly, I am certain she takes no pleasure in the news itself, but just as certain that there is pleasure in the telling—a type of satisfaction that is neither malevolent nor indecorous.
I am ashamed of myself for asking, for not pausing longer, for not forcing her to tell me without a prompt. A while ago my mother, lover of delivering bad news, took to refusing to accept it herself—at least from me, without assurance that it wouldn’t be the type of bad news she disliked. Instead of asking “what,” she has a series of preliminary screening questions. “How old is the person?” “Have I met her?” “Does it involve cancer?” “Dementia?” If she doesn’t like my answers, she might stop me by saying “no, sounds too depressing, I think I’m better off not knowing that” or worse, if it was someone she knew—an occurrence that has grown less common now that I have lived in Chicago for almost twenty years while she is still in Pennsylvania—she might guess accurately. “I always knew he would leave her” or “she didn’t seem well the last time I saw her. She should have exercised.” My mother is an expert in bad news, a true connoisseur, practically a psychic, which is strange given her unusually optimistic nature, at least about her own life. And I must say, she has had a lucky life, one in which mostly good things have happened to her.
My mother was a beautiful young woman. I know many people say this about their mothers—particularly writers, actors, and politicians who always seem to have mothers who resembled Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe—thereby ruining the credibility of those of us whose mothers actually were beautiful. Like mine.
My mother married a handsome man, tall and dark with thick curly hair, who was faithful and loving, never had eyes for anyone but her. Neither of them have been seriously ill or suffered any unexpected loss of consequence. Their house was paid off before retirement age and their own parents died peacefully at ripe old ages. If they have one disappointment, it’s me, their unmarried, middle-aged daughter. But even that isn’t as bad as it might have been. Their son provided them with the requisite grandchildren—a girl and a boy—and I’m not a complete loser. After all, I am a tenured college professor with a reasonable income, nice friends, and my own mortgage. I provide some bragging rights. She is as good at that as she was at presenting distressing news.
Alice Saunders. It’s so sad.
If memory serves me correctly, Alice and her husband were already split up; so Alice had to be dead or dying. The Saunders moved in next door when I was about thirteen. They were younger than my parents—in their mid twenties—so they didn’t socialize much with my parents, though there was an occasional drink before dinner or a neighborhood Christmas party. Because of babysitting for them, I probably saw them more frequently than anyone else in my family. I can’t picture her husband’s face—though I remember him as athletic and generally good looking, successful, on his way up my parents said—but I have several snapshots of Alice Saunders indelibly sketched in my brain. Alice Saunders in a tangerine colored linen cocktail dress that matched her lipstick. (In the summer she wore bright colors that suited her tan.) Alice Saunders in a bell-shaped maternity smock with a brick-a-brack hem and a gingerbread cookie person between her breasts, a style that seemed incongruent with her otherwise elegant appearance. Alice Saunders lying a lounge chair in her snow covered back yard on a sunny day, completely covered except for her face which was trying to catch a tan in the pre-tanning salon days. An aerial view of Alice Saunders traipsing across my lawn as I watched from my upstairs window—the halo of her shiny hair, her bare feet against our green grass—the first time she came over to ask me to babysit. But my strongest image of Alice Saunders is the day they moved in. Trying to stay out of the way of the movers as they carried in the furniture, she sat in the middle of the wide green lawn that sloped up to their house, white, Greek revival style, same as ours. Her tan legs were tucked under her. She wore madras shorts and a plain white linen blouse. Her first born, Ella, I think the name was, was cradled in her lap. Every now and then, Alice lifted the infant above her head to dust her nose against the baby’s nose, Eskimo kisses, I heard her call them later. Alice Saunders. She was the type of perfect young mother I wanted to be. Golden hair. Slender tan arms and legs. That was what my parents always called her. Alice Saunders. Not Mrs. Saunders or Alice. Have you heard what happened to Alice Saunders? What had happened usually concerned her drinking. She had a serious problem. Lots of my parents’ friend had drinking problems, some even lost marriages because of drinking. But Alice Saunders’ problem was somehow worse: hiding bottles around the house, drinking in closets, forgetting to pick up her children.
I never called Alice Saunders anything. She was too old for me to address as Alice, but too young to be called Mrs. Saunders. When I consider it now, I realize Alice Saunders was probably closer in age to me than to my mother.
Didn’t she and her husband split up a long time ago? Her drinking, right? Is she dead?
I have stories in my head of people I barely knew who died in bizarre circumstances. Two young salesmen, members of my parents’ post-college crowd, who went down in the crash of a small plane they had chartered for a business trip. Two prostitutes had been aboard with them. (My mother seldom has acquaintances who die quietly in their sleep.) I remember how my mother sighed when she told me, wondering what their young wives, at home with babies in diapers, must have felt at hearing the news of the prostitutes. Had the men lived, their wives would never have known about the prostitutes. But after the news, they would never be able to mourn, never have a chance to forgive. I don’t remember those men or their wives, but I carry them around in my memory bank: the crowded plane, laughing young men, faces pink from gin, party girls on their laps, a flash of lightening outside the porthole, screams as the engine sputters and the plane careens, bodies tossing, limbs and bottles flying.
There was the older friend of my mother’s who decorated her Christmas tree with miniature furniture—authentic replicas of antiques—from her daughter’s dollhouse. The women let me pick a piece the year we visited. I chose a tiny crystal chandelier with dangling prisms the size of rice kernels. I loved it, taped it to the living room ceiling of my tin doll house, until my mother told me the girl and her father had died in a car crash on Christmas Eve. Up until then, I had never wondered where the little girl was or why her mother would decorate a tree with her toys.
Some of the stories my mother told me as I was growing up were what one might call “age-appropriate”—or age-inappropriate, depending on one’s perspective. In high school, right around the time I had my first spray of adolescent acne, my mother told me about a high school friend of hers who had died from popping a pimple. Apparently, she said, there is an incorrect way of popping a pimple that shot poison backward through a blood vessel to the brain. It might have been her way of telling me not to meddle with my own blemishes. Quite effective. Not because I was afraid of dying, but because I could not bear the thought of the obituary—“death by pimple popping.”
Wait. Let me tell you the whole story. It really is tragic. Ever since she and Arthur divorced, she’s always lived out at the Buckingham. He got custody, of course—though the children are long grown now.
Could something worse than death have happened to Alice Saunders? Living in a two-bedroom apartment at the Buckingham, with its incongruent mix of mock French provincial detailing, was not as nice as having a house with a wide sloping front lawn, but certainly not a tragedy. After all, it wasn’t a studio walk-up out by the railroad tracks. Most of the middle class divorced women in Harmony, Pennsylvania, wound up at the Buckingham—at least until they met their second husbands.
Kathy, my only high school friend of divorced parents had lived at the Buckingham. I loved visiting her. It seemed extremely sophisticated to be living in an apartment house with a lobby and a doorman, a person to call if something wasn’t working properly. All of my other friends lived in houses like me. I had no way of knowing that grown-ups in small towns felt it was better to own than to rent and didn’t enjoy being able to hear what was being said through the walls.
Kathy also lived in Chicago the first year that I was here. She was my only friend in the city at the time. It seemed a unbearably long and unlikely road to tenure, and, worse, Sam had gone back to his wife. He told me the week before Christmas. We had broken up many times before but I knew this time was final. There would not be another breathless evening of making up. My reaction was a disturbing paradoxical mix of panic and grief and relief. To cheer me up, Kathy drove me back and forth on Michigan Avenue to look at the twinkling white fairy lights decorating the trees, while she relayed some her own most humiliating experiences. The one that stands out in my mind was the boy in college who had literally thrown her out of his bed. After being dumped by him, Kathy had gone to his room to try to win him back. He had slept with her but afterwards couldn’t take her sobbing and begging so had lifted and carried her, stark naked, into the hallway where he had deposited her before locking his own door. The image of Kathy, alone and naked in the dorm hallway, shocked me out of my own self-pity. I can’t remember how she got out of the dilemma; all I retain is an image of her naked—her smooth, young skin—cradled in his arms like a baby, then standing, exposed and unprotected in the hallway. My mother would have enjoyed that story. She disapproved of Kathy because her parents were divorced. It was such a rarity back then that my mother couldn’t fathom how a couple couldn’t keep their lives patched together. (Now she doesn’t understand people who won’t leave bad spouses.) I never told her; in addition to being a betrayal of Kathy, I couldn’t have borne the concealed satisfaction she would have felt. I preferred to try to tell her stories of tragedies that had befallen women similar to herself in age and station in life.
Did it have to do with her drinking?
Not only did the grown-ups whisper about Alice Saunder’s drinking. Even I noticed. Whenever I babysat, she was pretty and friendly when they went out. When they returned home, she wasn’t able to focus—in fact, it was as if she didn’t see me at all—she was capable of nothing but stumbling to the sofa to collapse or to the liquor cabinet where she fixed her myopic gaze on pouring a night cap. Her husband appeared annoyed or distracted as he counted out my pay and asked if I needed to be walked home. I never did; after all, it was western Pennsylvania in the sixties, which was like other places in the fifties, and I lived right next door.
During my senior, year, I overheard my mother tell my father that Alice Saunders had been sent off to dry out. I pictured an Alice-shaped sponge, saturated, swollen with gin, reclining on a chaise lounge in the sun on the lawn of a huge estate, white-uniformed orderlies and nurses walking the meandering paths around her. The scenario actually seemed romantic to me at the time. I hoped that I might grow into the glamorous type of woman who would need to be sent off to dry out. When I came home from college after my first semester, the Saunders had moved to another, less expensive part of town.
Of course. Drinking was Alice Saunders whole problem. It cost her her husband, her home, her children, and now her life. With some women it’s eating, with some it’s men. With Alice, it was booze. They found her dead in her apartment.
I knew it—her fate was worse than death—the fact that a “they” had found her meant she was alone. I wondered who the “they” was? Her landlord? A lover? Her former husband and his new wife? Had Mr. Saunders and his new wife continued to watch over her, tuck her in after a binge, then return to their own home on the other side of town? I didn’t know for sure that he had a new wife, but I presumed it. A wife to raise his children, a wife who felt sympathy for what he had experienced with Alice, a new wife to comfort him the way I would have comforted Sam if he had left his wife.
Thinking of Sam made me suspicious—what did my mother mean with the remark “. . . with some women it’s men?” Was it some sort of subtle rebuke. No, it couldn’t be. How could my mother know anything about any of relationships with men? She lives three states away. And it has been years since I had told her anything of that nature. Still it was troubling; she did seem to have a peculiar psychic ability. When I brought my first boyfriend home in high school, the moment he was out the door she said, “he looks like bad news.” It took me almost an entire year to learn the truth of her words. I pushed the thought from my head and tried to imagine how Mr. Saunders had met his second wife.
Perhaps they met at a party while Alice was passed out. Or maybe they met one of the times that Alice was sent away to dry out. Possibly the new wife even made the arrangements for Alice to move in the Buckingham, wrote out the monthly rent checks. I didn’t begrudge the new wife. Or Mr. Saunders for leaving Alice—after all he had stuck by her for many difficult years. But, oddly, I was somewhat disappointed in him, the same way I would have been in Sam if he actually had left his wife for me.
I hold my breath, knowing from my mother’s tone that there is more to come, the worst part. Most of my mother’s stories have little twists at the end, the slightly unbelievable quality of urban legends. Yet I have no doubt they are always true. I might not know the people well, but I know they exist. And I know that my mother never lies. She might have her own version of truth, but she doesn’t lie. My mother is such a keen observer of the lives of others that she doesn’t need to. She sees things and reports them, but keeps a distance. Sometimes she even states assumptions about the lives of famous people, assumptions that often come true. What is it that draws such an optimistic woman to bad news? A woman whose own life is rich and busy. Part of her seems to delight in the strange turns life can take, the stories they can make; another part seems to draw reassurance from the fact that the cause is actually right there, embedded in the life. Are the stories are meant to be collected and parceled out as lessons to those who are less capable and controlled than she.
Who found her?
It is interesting how much of any conversation takes place in the minds of the participants. That is one of the reasons why, I think, shared memories seldom match—the bulk of conversations take place where only one of the parties has access. This is why Sam would tell the story of our affair differently than I. Why my mother’s version of my childhood and my own would probably differ vastly.
That’s the worst part. Ella and her youngest son, Alice Saunder’s grandson. You remember Ella, don’t you? She was the oldest. She had brought her son to visit his grandmother.
I remembered Ella in diapers, seersucker play suits, startled by her own ability to walk across her parents’ living room, looking at each foot as it came up as if it were a miracle. And of course, that day on the front lawn when the Saunders moved in, dusting noses with her mother. A quick calculation told me that she must be in her late thirties now. Almost a generation older than my students. At forty-eight, I had just reached the age where I could tell students stories from my youth that shocked them because they sounded so old-fashioned. Stories of wearing white gloves on airplanes and for trips into the city, typing essays with carbon papers, cigarettes for 55 cents a pack. Life for them would have been unbearable without videos, only three channels, and no call-waiting. Whenever I tell these things, I see the astonishment on their faces, as if they are trying to reconcile what I say with how I look—not much older than their parents, perhaps even younger in terms of style and dress, a result of spending so much time on campus. Or maybe their astonishment has to do with something else? That I would tell them these things at all? That I think these items from my past interesting or pertinent to their lives?
I am growing annoyed.
Just tell me. What happened?
A friend of my father’s who had squandered his family’s fortune, had, before killing himself, gone out to the golf course, spread an oil cloth by the 18th hole—as not to soil the green—then shot himself in the head. At the time, my mother had remarked that at least he had been considerate enough to do it in a place where his wife wouldn’t find his body. The obituary had simply read he died at Green Valley Golf Club. Those who didn’t know would assume a heart attack. What would my students think of that?
I think my mother detects the irritation in my tone. She speeds up her tale.
Apparently she had just been released from a detox center—not a very nice one, I gather—and they told her this was it, she would really need to quit this time or that was it, she would die. She had just gotten back that day, stopped at the grocery store on her way home, one bag on the kitchen counter next to an open bottle of wine. There was a glass in her hand. The other grocery bags were still in the car.
I wonder, is this possible? If a doctor tells you that you’ll die if you continue drinking, can one simple glass of wine literally finish you off? Or had my mother omitted a few crucial details?
I picture the stem of the glass between Alice’s fingers, her head thrown back against the sofa, while outside two brown paper bags sit in the open hatchback of a Honda. Why a Honda—because that’s what I drive? That’s ridiculous! I have nothing in common with Alice. I rarely even finish a glass of wine. Yet when I roll the images around in my head, I think I understand how she must have felt, not being able to wait until she had even brought in all the bags. The sound of the cork being plucked from the bottle; the sparkle of white wine being poured into a goblet; the overwhelming rush of the first sip; and, most important, the feelings it must have evoked—anticipation, guilt, longing, relief. Although I don’t have a big taste for alcohol, I know the feeling of desire, of drowning in your own cure for pain. Haven’t I felt that at the smell of a lover’s skin, the taste of Sam’s sweat?
How do you know all of this?
I often forget to ask this question. And I never ask why she has chosen to tell me, what she wants me to take from the story. I know that I am supposed to figure that out on my own. That much I know about our relationship. We are seldom able to say what we mean directly. Do all families invent their own forms of saying what they want to say, buried in stories and gossip and news? Their own method of delivery, nudging questions from the listener, forcing silences in order to increase or decrease the other’s culpability in the telling of bad news? Or could it be that I’ve misjudged my mother? Might she have entirely different intentions than the ones I perceive? Could her bad news be intended as good? Might she be saying that things could be worse?
Look, I would love to chat, but the Parkers are coming for dinner tonight and I haven’t even gone to the store yet. Your father is going to be home any minute.
Then she is gone. I am left holding a dead line. This is just another of my mother’s peculiarities—ending conversations and hanging up, without saying goodbye—for which, despite all the hundreds of times it has happened, I am still unprepared.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.