It’s harder to leave your burning home after you’ve spent so much time cleaning its floors. Watching those baseboards char should be enough to make any good woman lie back in bed and let it happen. The fact that I got up and hauled Angela out with me is proof enough of my selfishness.
The years with her father before the fire—when I still had my figure and the energy to walk about, the will and ability to be moved—passed with such seeming ease, but the truth of those days and the trouble they held is lost in the archives of memory’s drunken catalog. Its delicate, age-soaked pages stay with me like an old phone book packed and moved out of some sentimental urge.
If anyone has found an adequate response to that fiction of chemical and circumstance which is love, it is my Angela. Even when she was a girl, she squirmed out of my grasp and kissed the kitchen table instead. She was barely toddling and would force me with pleads and screaming to spend hours on the bridge over the county road, tucking flowers between its wooden slats.
She shrank into a child’s malaise when they demolished the old post office. The workers had dumped the remnants of the structure and covered it with a few buckets of sand, and she wept and reached for it. This wasn’t her usual brand of sadness, the kind she had when her blanket was tumbling in the dryer and she could only watch from her crib, a few sweet tears on her cheek. At the pile, she was hysterical. I let her down and she stumbled toward it, tripping over her feet, grinding dirt into her hands and face, ruining her play clothes. She kicked and crawled, wailing, scrabbling at the pile until finally her fingers found purchase. She took hold and leaned back with her full weight, wrenching a brick free and inspiring a plume of dirt. A man walking down the road stopped and stared. She cleared the brick from the pile, covered it with her body, and was asleep by the time I approached. I couldn’t remove it without waking her and so brought it home with us, weighing her down in her car seat. I remember it was warm, the brick. At home, I wrapped it in a sheet of newspaper and left it on the dresser beside her crib.
She took on a mighty insomnia, reaching for it. A neighbour suggested the paediatric hospital downtown. I considered an appointment but couldn’t bear to think of them running tests on a little girl who had merely cried over a pile of building materials. She was too sensitive and thoughtful, easy to tears and infant rages. This could all mean strength and character in adulthood, but any doctor would return with her simple imbalances marked on a chart. He would never wonder if something is not simply born into a person with no reason or requirement. Her father would have agreed. And so I put the brick in her crib with her and she slept soundly. From my chair, in which I spent only the evening hours of those new days, I sipped my drink and strained my ears to the strange sound of her silence.
My darling girl fattened into a woman but never truly recovered from the malaise which distinguished her as a child. She took the room above mine when it opened up in the duplex and brought my dinner down every night. My sensibilities lean to the fish fry and hot dish. A dessert of mine once took first in the neighbourhood fair after I took the boxed brownie mix and added chopped up Mars bars; all the ladies did it that way after that. I appreciate her, though truly she is dull in the kitchen.
My bacon was always crisp, my roast chicken a celebration of subtle spice; she microwaves her meats to the consistency of a hot rubber wheel. She substitutes rice for butter because of its similar shade. She keeps potatoes for hours in boiling water, creating a soup she must strain before she dishes up the slop. She served me a plate of canned beans on a piece of white bread and told me it was a recipe she found on the television.
‘What television are you watching?’
‘We should go to the tower,’ she said, settling into the couch beside me, moving my oxygen tank to make room for her feet. Is it worth noting? I have nothing but time; I never much cared for the lack of material distinction from the lesser piece of furniture, preferring to think of my recliner as a velveteen rose throne rather than the smaller part of a living room set. ‘The tower is my lover.’
The boundary between bean and bread had vanished, and truly the mixture had creamed under its own power. ‘Fine, fine,’ I said. ‘But what television?’
She was kind enough to drive me places. I’m a little delicate these days, despite my size, and time away from my recliner wears me out. I only go to meetings anymore. The bones shift in my body like those in a creature dead under ice. They weaken slightly more each time I stand to share my story of sweet hidden booze and the personal redemption that came with a will toward freedom.
I had to reach for a man while I was speaking on how my higher power is represented by the face of Angela’s father and my father combined. As I spoke, I felt a blindness creep. I sank across the aisle of folding chairs and the young man caught me under my arms as if he had been anticipating the chance. Surely he was placed there. My vision was crowded with fire; the tube had crimped inside its case, we learned later. I clutched at him and swayed, hearing the feeling that resonated into sound within my bones. I felt their air thin, and so held this man, waiting for the scene to clear and reveal again the circle of chairs and their old-timers. Over cold coffee after, the man said he was new in town and agreed he would try to make it over sometime for dinner and that he could bring a pan of his gram’s cornbread, in which the secret was canned corn. In the car, Angela closed her architecture magazine and asked me what the drunks went on about this time.
She brought me milk cloudy with water for my breakfast, first claiming it was a diet tonic but once pressed admitting she only had the dregs of a carton left in her house and no other food at all. Worse, as she sat and watched me drink it, I spied a wet bit of fried egg trembling in her hair. She jerked back when I tried to pick it out, and so I took hold of her shirtsleeve and told her to let me smell it on her breath, at which point she called me an occultist and left the house with the door unlocked. It took a great effort for me to drag the tank and stop and lean on it and drag the tank again and finally reach and bolt the door, because I was not well and I remain not well. The tank leaned me solicitous toward the floor, but I knew that it would be the end of me if I fell and dragged it back to my chair, where I drifted in and out of a sad doze. My tank whirred to an eventual halt and my child did not return for some time, during which I resorted to scraping and licking dishes within reach, gasping like a fish. I like to keep my feet in a tub, but even the water gave me no comfort once it turned grey and cold. I had no strength to change it and so kicked
it over like a mule and wept.
She returned the following Saturday without explanation or apology, bearing a plate of beef jerky, which she balanced ceremoniously in my lap.
‘I want to take you to my lover,’ she said.
‘It is not possible.’
‘But you’ll be so proud.’
I was breathing easier since she hooked in a new tank but I was still very weak. The ribbed fabric of my short nightgown had branded my legs and I tried to rub the pattern away with my thumb. A knob of jerky landed in the mess of wet newspaper at my feet. She reached down and retrieved the meat, drying it on her jeans and placing it before me, brushing away a fly.
‘I take you to your meetings,’ she said. ‘I brought you a new tank.’
‘There’s no effort in it.’
‘You should come with me to meet my lover.’
Leaving the house requires a week’s worth of strength and still she makes this request.
‘A man came by. I heard him knocking on your door and then he came up and knocked on mine. I saw him through the peephole.’
‘And then you let him in? You invited him to sit with you and watch television? Your hands inched across the couch toward each other in the heady first days of love?’
‘I didn’t take the chain off the door and he left. There was a pan of cornbread on your mat. It was fine.’ She made an idiotic little half smile and shrugged.
‘Certainly all of it was fine.’
‘Mother, you are on a diet.’
‘You should get on your feet and take a little exercise. Come with me to see my lover.’
‘You certainly are doing just fine.’
It took me a few hours after she was gone to calm down, but I eventually decided that her happiness, though fleeting and confused, and alienated from the love and comfort of others, is still happiness, and I should be glad and grateful. Her old raffia beach bag had sprinkled stray gravel when she lifted it to go and I saw enough of it studding the rug to ruin the vacuum.
I’ve earned the right to sit after years on my feet. I started in my teen years as a cashier at the sporting goods store, feeling the blood struggle to work its circuit back up my system. It was more of the same at the chalkboard, incanting grammatical clauses, ankles swollen so thick that they looked ready to give birth to a pair of screaming children that would match the ones I served. Whole afternoons were lost tracing the edge of the road from home to school and from school back home, shivering against the trucks, toddling in stupid shoes that inspired knots, my flask warm all the while against my thigh. I leaned like a pack beast against walls and doorframes, waiting for the day to end. I stood beside my man at the altar, stood to save our child from the fire, and stood to hold her while she fussed and puked, whispering in her ear that the sitter was stealing from us. Sleep was a horizontal version of the same; I braced my feet against a pillow, standing in my dreams. And so, yes, when the work was over and with it the requirement of mobility, I sat immediately and with satisfaction. I wore out folding chairs and sofa cushions and then I found my velveteen rose, my reinless ride, and I did take my throne and fuse its plush to my own and from it for the remainder of my days I will Ride.
Angela returned the next morning, refilled the tub for my feet, and fed me pieces of ham. When I was through, she wiped up the mess of magazines and soiled clothing, working without complaint. I was suspicious.
‘Would you like a ride to the early meeting?’ she asked.
‘That would be so kind.’
‘I value you truly.’
‘And I you, darling.’ We were a mother and daughter in a stage play. I took her wrists, which limped in my grasp. She twitched and she made a chuffing sound. I thought she was angry with me, but she was gentle with my tubes as she loaded me into the car.
At meeting, the young man who had caught me before smiled and sat on the far end of the room. I waited patiently until it was my time to share.
‘My child should be grateful for the life she has been afforded through my sacrifice and work,’ I said. ‘She should be thankful for my loving control, optimistic for the years ahead. There are cultures in which the daughter is tied to the mother for her entire adult life, physically bound with a rope, released only for the carnal act, and then the two are bound together again. You’ll find a maternal lineage of women going through the streets like that, and when one slows to observe a basket of peaches, they all stop and make a group decision on the merits of the greengrocer. Compared to that, we seem so distant as to be almost strangers.’
A young woman applauded, laughing. I pitied her, forced to dry out in a lonesome apartment, opening tinned food for cats, slicing a peach for her own dinner and eating it over a sink facing the wall. She makes much of her own bravery but has no one to be brave for, and when she dies, her old cat will pluck out her eye. She will be found by a landlord collecting his rent.
At night I think of my child above me, my husband above her, and my old smiling Higher Power above them both, and I say: Keep this girl hidden out of the light so that her eyes may become wide dark voids that might better reflect me.
Angela came bearing a box of doughnuts and handed me one on a plate. A fly had been troubling my legs all morning and this was a happy departure. She talked of a memorable television programme, digging into her bag as she went on, the snapped straw at its corners ripping her stockings when it grazed her leg. Her lovely dark hair was matted and her right knee was roseate with a blooming bruise. The contents of her bag threatened to emerge: a pilled sweater; three or four notebooks; disposable chopsticks in their paper; the parched nub of a carrot. Surely there was a wallet in there, some identification, her old first-aid card. A package of gum, stale and somehow rumpled. She extracted a fork and set it on my plate as the fly landed on the doughnut, plunging its sucker mouth.
‘Eat your breakfast,’ she said, glancing up from her bag for only a moment. The skin around her eyes was cracked at the edges like she was carved from clay. I would keep her under glass if I could. She found a dried mass of facial tissue, honked into it, and examined the evidence. The fly rubbed its spindled legs together and placed them on the doughnut, a chocolate-frosted variety.
‘I wish you would ride with me to my lover,’ she said.
I took a healthy bite. The fly tried valiantly to extract itself from where it was trapped, and the ticklish sensation inside my mouth started me laughing. ‘Where?’ I asked.
She regarded my laughter. ‘Not too far.’
That damn fly invigourated me.
‘In the woods,’ she said.
All right then, before I change my mind.’
She clasped her hands and kissed me on the cheek. If I had been able to reach the picture of her father on the mantel, I would have turned it to face the wall.
This drive would be longer, she said, and we needed to prepare. It took some time in the car to wedge the spare tank under my legs, and once we figured that out, the glove compartment popped open and wagged against my belly. She drove us to the edge of town, past the county school and the new junkyard, a handful of ranches, the regional airport, and the place where the community college took their cadaver dogs out to train them.
She spun the wheel a couple of minutes after we passed the old junkyard and we jagged off the road onto a gravel path. She threw it into a low gear as we bounced over the road, which transitioned to dirt in short order. My body groaned with the jostling and I gripped the dash.
She had to keep up a pace fast enough that we wouldn’t sink. A colourful series of pennants were strung up, the kind from a party store, and she turned there and pressed on. I wondered at how she got out here in the first place. The glove compartment unlatched again on a significant bump and out spilled cassette tapes and receipts and a travel guide to Oklahoma.
‘You are going to destroy your alignment,’ I murmured to the mess.
At that moment she stopped the car so violently I thought that she was angry with me, then she ran us into a log and took out the engine entirely. But then she put it in park and trotted around to let me out. ‘Come on,’ she said.
We were parked at the unceremonious end of a trail, foliage on three of four sides. She had taken us as far as we could go. Another bright line of flags was strung across a low branch. The pennants read CONGRATULATIONS, the S tied around the tree. She headed for the woods but turned back before she rounded the bend. ‘Come on,’ she repeated.
My shirt rode up when I leaned against the exterior of the car, and the moisture condensed below my shirt and soaked through the elastic edge of my pants and onto the broad plain of their jersey fabric.
‘How far is it?’
‘We came all this way. Just over the ridge.’
Walking was an insult to my condition. This was my only child, knowing the pain I was in and forcing me to go pursue that pain for some silent third party. This was the first time we had been at this impasse, and my heart sank at the idea that it would not be the last. Still, I obeyed. My ankles moaned against the intrusion of unstable ground, but I obeyed. The terrain soaked cold through my soft shoes. Shards of stone cut into my feet as I lurched toward my baby girl.
‘Watch your footing,’ she said, though she knew it was enough work already to make progress up the hill. She knew. She wrapped her arms around me when I reached her. I thought for a hopeful moment that she might carry me on her back. Her big bag fell against me, a comforting sudden weight. My breath caught and seized. We held each other.
‘There you are,’ she whispered, squeezing.
We walked a twisting mile through the dale. Every step reminded me of my chair and I longed for it. I thought of dinner and sleep. I thought of gin. My ankles ached but it was my bones that truly troubled. They locked and ground. I remembered a doctor cautioning me against activity, displaying a model of a normal leg and then removing some key elements, pushing the remaining bones together to demonstrate my future. There among the soaked and rotting wood I felt the doctor’s hands on my own legs and feet, twisting them, watching my expression. I tried to conjure an image of my husband to clear my mind but could see only his bones as we cleared the ridge.
She had spoken of a tower. I thought it would crest the hill, a fortress against the sun, abounding stone, room enough for horses. Instead, I was faced with a broken place. The walls were charred to a cold crisp, its slate roof sagging, windows burst and gone, the door a seared gape. It sat alone in an airless glade, four simple walls ringed with a fading constellation of ash. Her great love was a ruin like any other.
The homesteader who built the place must have wanted dearly to be alone. He built far from any path, choosing an area flanked by boulders and fallen trees as if he hoped to dissuade even the limber animals who might otherwise discover the clearing. The trees bending deferent seemed to be shielding the unhappy space from errant light and the setting sun managed only to cast a dark purple wash across the ruined place, giving it the look of a drowned man.
‘It burned,’ she said. ‘Before I knew it.’
She walked ahead, arms swinging with purpose. I could not quite hear what she was saying and realised she was speaking to the house. She touched its threshold frame. I had a vision of the place a flame, its slate a foreign sky. She rubbed her soot-black fingers together before dropping to her knees like she was looking under a bed. She pressed her face against the wall. I heard her groan. My tank bounced on the terrain as I worked toward her and then passed her in the threshold.
Inside, it was warm and dark against the wind. Ash made a drifting slope in each corner. There was a trapped energy in the walls as if the ghost of the fire remained to charge it. If my chair was placed here, it would serve to complete a dark circuit.
And there, knees muddling the char, my girl kissed the brick. I watched despite my disgust, for what mother can truly stand to see her child in love. Hunched there on the ground, she licked and gagged, whimpering as sweetly as when she nursed from my breast.
Dragging my tank through blooming ash, I moved to her side. I leaned down and felt my spine jag in on itself, air bubbling from its subtle pores. I fell to one knee and then the other. The tube sprang from my nose and went spiraling into darkness. I crawled to my child where she lay, tonguing the wall. I gripped her, sensing her father with us there. I felt his disappointment in me.
‘It’s perfect,’ I said, wrapping my arms around her, mouth to her ear as her face pressed the wall. We collapsed and curled around each other on the ground, our breath a union, in no place like home.