Fiction — From the May 2013 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Fiction — From the May 2013 issue
As much as I love her, I blame Astrid. Astrid told my wife, Corinne, that she could achieve happiness if only she’d leave me. It sounded simple. “Leave that guy, walk out that door, you’ll achieve happiness, you’ll be free.” Achieve happiness. Now there’s a phrase. Into the Ford with the busted shocks and out onto the American road, then — that was the prescription.
I stood in the driveway. It was sleeting the day she left. I had agreed not to follow her. She was so eager to go, she forgot to use the windshield wipers until she was halfway down the block. She turned the corner, the tires splashed slush, the front end dipped from the bad shocks, and she was gone.
Holding on to my son, I walked into the garage. Blank-faced, I took an inventory. Jeremy, in my arms. My rusting pickup truck. The broken rake, the bent saw, the corroded timing light still on the ledge beneath the back window with the curtains. Yes, the garage window had curtains. Don’t ask me why I put them there. More inventory: the house itself. My life. My health. My job. A case of beer. My mother, Dolores, upstairs in her room. Let them arrive here, whatever they are is my first motto, and my second is Let them stay.
Astrid thought that happiness was within poor Corinne’s grasp, and she said so, day after day. Happiness for you, she would say, is a day without Wes. You are right to say that Wes crowds you and confuses you. Any morning you wake up without that guy’s stale beer breath on you will be pure profit. Astrid was relentless on the subject of me. She and Corinne worked at the same nurses’ station, 3-F. In the quiet of the hospital night, plans were hatched. A nurse can always get a job, anyplace. Those were Astrid’s words, I have no doubt.
Corinne had been bitching about me, to me, and the topics were, I don’t know, the usual. I drank too much on weekends, my dog Scooter slobbered on the bedroom floor, my hands were always dirty from the shop — and the killer accusation: I was inattentive to her needs, whatever they were. Mostly Corinne complained about herself, her rickety soiled unrecognizable life, her confusion, her panic over our baby, her fear of being an inadequate mother, her sadness, that stuff.
But I loved her, and she left me. Then I loved Astrid, and I married her. I’m married to her now, and I still love her. She has — and I’ve got to use this word — guile. Corinne, my first wife, had none. You’d think a nurse of all people could take care of her own baby and not be bewildered. But she was. Mousy brown hair, mystified by most conversations, unable to fix a dinner you could serve to guests, she was about the most lovable thing you ever saw. I lost my heart to her helplessness time and again. I’m not saying this is admirable.
The minute Corinne was gone, Astrid showed up. I don’t recall that, prior to that day, we had so much as exchanged a moody, sparking glance. She took me into her expert arms. It was consolation and sympathy at first, I guess. I didn’t question it. In about the time it takes to change the painted background in a photographer’s studio from a woodland scene to a brick wall, she had left her boyfriend and was presenting me with casseroles and opened bottles of cold beer. I took some advantage of her, but she didn’t mind my advances. She was saying, “Wes, it seems you are the one. I am surprised.” She discounted the flaws I owned up to. My first wife lost her credibility as a character witness, and I got a spell cast on me. And then I softened. Love for Astrid like a climbing vine grew out of my heart. I don’t know how else to say it.
She was competent and assured with child rearing, calm in the face of infant tantrums. On Sunday morning, next to me, Astrid would read the travel section, pencil in hand, naming far-flung places we would go someday. In this household, confusion was dispelled. Now we had pedestals. Things like clarity and plans and pleasure and love went on top of them. What luck I’d been given, I thought. Here was all this day-in-day-out whoopee. Astrid brought all surfaces to an unlikely shine. Jeremy stopped yelling all the time and began to grow. Teeth, toddling, jabber, talk.
New toys appeared. The divorce went through without Corinne wanting any custody whatsoever or getting any. Astrid and I married, and pretty soon we had ourselves another child, a startlingly beautiful daughter. Lucy. A new path, the next stage. Corinne called Jeremy when he was grown enough to talk, but she couldn’t manage to see him, or so she said in her jumbled, haphazard way. She was too delicate, and she claimed her strings were too tightly strung for ordinary social life. Visits would put stress on her immune system. Anyway she couldn’t manage them, or so she said. Jeremy suffered from this absence, but when it became permanent, he didn’t suffer anymore because Astrid had taken over the mom chores with such competence and love. So Corinne called instead of visiting, and mostly she wrote letters. My God, those letters! Moms aren’t supposed to write letters like that. The coffee spills, the anarchy handwriting, the paragraphs without topics, the sentences without subjects and verbs. Jeremy’s letters back to Corinne were full of the news of his childhood. After a while, his letters became very halfhearted, quoting baseball statistics. He wrote them with decreasing frequency.
The time when Corinne went on daytime TV, the show was about runaway moms. She sat on the stage with three other women. What made her willing to appear there, I’ll never know. For the first ten minutes, the foppish host of the show and the question-askers from the audience sounded reasonable and sympathetic, but by the end of the hour, they were indignant. Out in the peanut gallery they were pointing fingers and shouting at the runaway moms, and others applauded and woofed when the accusations concluded. I only heard about it from a neighbor who watches TV all day and who said that Corinne’s hair was darker than she remembered it, with gray streaks. I felt terrible for Corinne, for her eager incompetence and wish to be on national television. I could imagine her befuddled face as she sat there being razzed by hooligans in the studio.
Dolores, my mother, came to live with us in the spare room upstairs right before Corinne left. She said she’d help with Jeremy, and she did for a while. Mostly she stayed up there knitting and staring out the window, checking for strangers to our neighborhood, including door-to-door salesmen. On Thursdays she would go to her bridge club and on Friday nights to Bible study. Despite her name (dolores means “sad” according to the Latin), my mother is quite upbeat. Take a chance on life is her motto. She and Astrid bonded immediately. She has tried to keep it a secret from me, but I know my mother was and is interested in extraterrestrials (although she is a registered Republican) and believes that Jesus will be back any day now. She imagines that we are in the end-time and must meet the challenges of life with Christian dignity. Astrid humors her, though they avoid this topic when I am in the room.
My mother’s help was not required after our daughter, Lucy, was born. But Lucy was never any trouble at all. She could have raised herself. She came out of the birth canal with an accusing look on her face directed at me.
Jeremy is seventeen and has a tattoo of a Japanese word on his left calf. I still don’t know what it means, and he won’t say. On his hip is another tiny tattoo, a grinning gremlin, hands on hips. It’s illegal for children and adolescents to get tattoos, but he evidently got them in a low place known only to his set. I read Jeremy the riot act that time he came home with the Japanese character but was treated with amused, affectionate scorn, as if I were a historical artifact. Get this: in deep winter he’s been known to wear a sweatshirt, jeans, and flip-flops outside. Summer clothes in a snowstorm — a pretense of immortality. He wants to be a young god as they all do and defy the seasons. In Minnesota that’s a brave stand, and many teenage boys take it. Therefore he’s wildly popular. He has several hundred friends and is constantly texting them. His face has some of the sweet beauty of his mother, Corinne. The three women in the household dote on him. They comb his hair and would tie his shoelaces for him if he’d let them. His little sister sketches his face when he is sitting down. Imagine the possible result: a spoiled brat. However, he’s not really spoiled, just blasé. Naturally he smiles all the time, having done nothing to earn all this love. He looks past me as if I were a footnote.
The point is, Corinne is back in town, and we have a situation on our hands. She has sent a postcard saying that she will be arriving by bus, and so I take a few hours off from work at the garage to go downtown to get her. Explanations for her arrival? None. Some idea of what the agenda might be? Not a clue. Her arrival has no more rationale than her departure did all those years ago.
Although I am not secretive by nature, I have told no one else in the house about Corinne’s reappearance. When I arrive at the Greyhound station on Hawthorne Avenue, I enter the doors and smell that rich bus-station smell of humus mixed with nitrates. You feel like editorializing on humanity when you enter a bus station. But you don’t, because Corinne is already sitting there, waiting on a bench. She has two brown paper bags with her. Soiled clothes are peeking out of the tops of the bags, sweaters and unmentionables, and she’s staring at the wall clock.
And here I must try to describe my ex-wife in her current condition.
Imagine a beautiful woman of middle age who has somehow gone through a car wash. She has dried out, but the car wash has rumpled her up, left the hair going every which way, and on her face is a dazed expression and she has new parallel lines on her forehead and crow’s-feet around her eyes. Life has worried and picked at her. But that’s not the point. The point is that she’s still beautiful to me, which is strange. It’s counter to common sense.
She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt with the name of a TV show printed on it. It’s the TV show she was on and where she was mocked. The show’s name is the name of the small-minded and mean millionaire host with the thin mustache. Corinne looks up at me as I take her hand. She stands audibly. She kisses me on the cheek. For that instant her warm lips are familiar. I feel an antiquated tingle.
“Wes,” she says, “I knew you’d save me.”
“Haven’t saved you yet, Corinne,” I say, trying to laugh it off. She smells of french fries and hamburger and ketchup. A fast-food smell. The poor soul. What’s happened to her? “How are you?”
“How am I? As you can see.”
I don’t say anything in the face of the incomparable wreckage she presents.
“Well,” she says, “is the inspection over? Would you take one of these bags? I’ll take the other.” She picks up one of the aforementioned bags, and when I look down I see that her shoes are split at the seams. Through the hole in her left shoe, toes are visible.
My first wife has become a bag lady, and here she is.
This is what she says in the truck on the way back to the house.
“It’s the economy. There’s suffering. You were always a grease monkey, Wes, and you could always get a job fixing cars. So you wouldn’t know. But they’re making it really personal in my case and saying that I can’t keep track of things. Perhaps I was losing track, but only in the afternoons when I was off by myself, and the experts wouldn’t deny that, although they tried to. In a way, the multinational banks did this to me, because I couldn’t live on my income and I was eventually fired from the hospital, and even though sorrow isn’t necessarily contagious, I know I caught it directly from one of my patients. He was a man who groaned all day. The groans got into my head and took up residence there. I’m hearing them now. Can you hear them? No? Lucky you. God bless you for picking me up, Wes. I know I should have given you more of a warning, but I couldn’t. My goodness, it’s cold.” She wraps a scarf around her neck. But it’s not cold. The cold is all in her head. It’s a warm and humid early-October day, seventy degrees. Indian summer. To stay warm and to give herself a greenhouse effect, she’s wrapped herself up like a mummy.
“That’s all right, Corinne,” I tell her. “Where are you staying, by the way?”
She looks at me.
“What I meant was, how long are you staying? Here? With us?”
Gazing out, she says, “American cities are so dirty.” She points to an abandoned, boarded-up drugstore. “I do remember an apothecary, and hereabouts a-dwells,” she says meaninglessly, as if she’s quoting from somewhere. She breathes in deeply and coughs twice. “Let me tell you a story. There was this woman. And she was just fine for a while, and her husband was just fine, too, and no one was to blame for anything. Let’s say this happened in the past. They lived in comfort and kindness with each other. But then something happened. Let’s say a volcano erupted. And she never knew what happened, I mean who caused the volcano, but she knew something did happen, because gradually she was never fine. The dust made her cough, and the water seemed to be poisoned, and the air smelled terrible, of lava, and there were voices, and she realized she had made a big mistake bringing a child into the world. Into this world, my God, how terrible it is, and no one has any idea.”
“Oh, Corinne,” is all I can say. Trouble is waiting for me patiently at home. Because I have not told Astrid, my wife, or Dolores, my mother, or Jeremy, my son, or Lucy, my daughter, that Corinne is in town, there will be tribulation. Why couldn’t I tell anyone that I was going to the bus station to pick her up? I know why. Give me some credit. After all these years, I wanted to see her, and therefore I would see her. I had forgiven her. I forgive her now. But would they? It was a bad bet. Still, I am the head of the household.
She pulls down the sun visor and moves the little slide to the left and looks at herself in the visor’s mirror, primping her hair. “They’ve done things to me. They don’t let up.”
“Wes,” she says, turning to face me, “I can’t help it. I need taking care of for a time.” The neutrality on her face has vanished. There is another expression there now. It is one of supplication such as you see from homeless veterans on street corners. Supplication. Does anybody ever use that word in normal life? I doubt it. “There’s something I want you to do,” she says, but then she won’t say what it is. “Is this your neighborhood?” she asks.
“We’re getting there,” I say.
Houses pass by, old houses with large front porches, and I note a screech from my F-150’s engine, a loose fan belt.
“Wes, did you ever think of me?”
It’s a trick question. They are always asking you for outright expressions of affection and love. But I have to be careful. My answer may be quoted back to me. For a moment I am spooked.
“Yes, I did think of you. Often.”
“Even after you were married to Astrid?”
“Yes.” I drive down a full city block before I say, “I worried about you.”
This is not the answer she has been fishing for. But she seems to relax and to settle back. On the floor of the truck, on the passenger side, there is an empty beer can I forgot to throw out. With a regal air, she puts her right foot on it to keep it from rolling around.
“I thought that maybe you did. Sometimes I had dreams about you. In the dreams you were a young man, and you were still being kind to me. You carried me once out of a burning apartment house. You did it for free. In the dream.”
We pull into the driveway. I can see from the blue Honda Civic parked in the garage that Astrid is already home. My mother — today is Wednesday — will certainly be upstairs in her room knitting a shawl or surfing the Internet for stories about true crime or the coming apocalypse. Jeremy may still be out tomcatting around town with his crazed friends before dinner, but Lucy will be in residence in the living room, reading one of her horse books.
Really, I should take Corinne to a motel until I can figure out what to do with her. But instead I pick up her two brown paper bags. We go in through the side door, stop for a moment in the mudroom, and then go up the three stairs into the kitchen past several pairs of soiled empty shoes. I’m behind her, and I notice how gray her hair has become and how it, too, gives off a fast-food odor.
In the kitchen, Astrid has been sprinkling seasoning onto some salmon when she glances up and sees Corinne, who looks worse than she did a few minutes ago because of the kitchen’s overhead light. First Astrid looks at Corinne. Then she looks at me, and then she looks at Corinne again. Expressions pass across her face so quickly that you might think you hadn’t seen the previous one before the next one appears. First she’s confused: her eyebrows rise up. Who’s that? Then she’s in full recognition mode: her mouth opens, slightly, though she says nothing. Her tongue licks her upper lip. Then it’s time for pity and compassion, and her eyes start to water. Then she’s shocked, and her hand with lemon juice on it rises to her face. “Uh,” she says, but nothing else comes out. A little spot of seasoning stays on her cheek. Then she’s angry, and that’s when she looks at me, as if I were the cause of all this. But the anger doesn’t stay posted up there on her face for long. It’s displaced by an expression we don’t have a word for. You see this expression when someone is hit by circumstances that are much bigger than expected, and the person is trying to restore things to normal, which can’t be done. Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.
My wife makes a move toward my ex-wife, to embrace her. I stand there waiting to see whether there will be an implausible hug. But Astrid stops herself in midstep.
Right about then, Lucy sails into the kitchen, heading toward the refrigerator for a diet soft drink. She turns and sees Corinne. “Who’re you?” she asks rudely.
No one remembers to say anything in response. Down the street, in the distance, a car alarm goes off, a faint eee eee eee sound.
Lucy looks at me, then at her mother, then at Corinne. “What’s going on?”
“This,” I say at last, pointing at Corinne, “is Jeremy’s mother, Corinne. She’s here for a visit.”
“How do you do?” Corinne says. “You must be Lucy. You look so clean. And bright. So do you, Astrid,” she says, smiling at my wife. “But then you always did. It must be from the hospital. It must be from the disinfectants.”
“My God, Corinne,” Astrid blurts out. “What happened to you?”
“I died,” Corinne says. “And then I got on a bus and came here.”
Astrid tells me that she and I need to talk, and we descend into the mudroom to confer. I explain about the postcard, and Astrid nods randomly. She’s angry, of course, that I said that Corinne was, or is, Jeremy’s mother. She’s even angrier that she’s here and that I said nothing about her arrival, but given the strangeness of events, I am temporarily forgiven. We determine that for now Corinne will sleep in the basement rec room’s foldout bed. She may find the basement somewhat damp, given her allergic inclinations, but that’s life. The dehumidifier does its level best. Then Astrid says to me, “Don’t ever do this again,” as if Corinne’s appearance here is my idea.
“I didn’t do it this time,” I reply.
When we return to the kitchen my mother has descended from her upstairs room and is talking to Corinne as if Corinne had only been away for a few days. My mother is immune to surprise. Those two are conversing quite lucidly on various topics: the weather, and then recipes they once shared, and treatments for the common cold (zinc lozenges). Astrid returns to the salmon. Will there be enough for everyone? Yes, if the portions are small. I instruct Lucy to set the table, which she does, happy to have a task to keep her occupied. I remind her to set an extra place for Corinne. I pick up Corinne’s two brown paper bags and take them downstairs, and I fold out the bed and make it up with sheets and blankets that we keep down there in an old dresser near the dehumidifier.
But what I am thinking about is Jeremy, and so I go back upstairs, past the kitchen, into the living room, and then out into the front yard, and I open my cell phone, and I call him, and when he answers, I say, “Get right home.”
He says, “I’m almost there. What’s up?”
“Something has happened,” is all I can say, “and it’s about you. I’ll explain when you get home.”
Corinne broke my heart when she left me, and I was ready to be angry with her for years after that. But day by day the anger seeped out of me in a slow trickle until it was gone. I have to let her remain here if she wants to. She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins. What happened to her could’ve happened to me or to anybody.
Jeremy, however, possesses neither wisdom nor adult perspective, and my heart is thumping away like a maddened rabbit in a cage as I wait for him to get home. At last I see him coming down the block on his skateboard while he talks on his cell phone.
When I get to the kitchen, he’s standing there near the stove, and all the women are looking at him but no one is saying anything. Again, the silence. What’s the matter with them? They talk all the time when nothing is on the line, but if something serious happens, they clam up.
“What’s going on?” he asks. He looks over at Corinne and nods his head in her direction. “Who’s this?” Corinne is standing over there, propped up against the refrigerator.
Again a silence persists. No one will step up to the plate. So I say, “This is Corinne. Corinne, this is Jeremy.”
The thing is, they look so similar that you’d never mistake them for anything except a mother and her son. Gazing at Corinne, Jeremy suddenly notices that resemblance, and he flinches.
“Hi,” Corinne says shyly. She sweeps the bangs away from her forehead and gives him a halfhearted smile. She can’t hug him. She can’t kiss him. Not yet. All she can do is stand there.
Jeremy looks at her, then at Astrid, then at Dolores, and finally at Lucy. That’s when Lucy pipes up. “That’s your mom,” she says as if this were the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.
Jeremy points at Astrid. “That’s my mom.”
“Well, we both are, sort of,” Corinne says. “Don’t you think?” She looks like a high school girl at a dance hoping that some eligible fellow will come into view to retrieve her.
“You’re kidding,” Jeremy says.
“Corinne is going to stay with us for a while until she gets back on her feet,” I say.
That’s when he turns to me, blushing from anger. “On her feet?” He starts to leave the room but then Corinne points at his ear.
“You have an earring,” she says.
Jeremy nods, stumped by the obvious.
And then she says, “I’ve never gotten used to them on men. Not even on grown men. I know I should, the way everyone else does, but I can’t. I just can’t.” She seems to be trying to break up the silences with plain speech. “No one told me how boy-pretty you’d become. I’m so old-fashioned. With that earring you look a little queer.”
“Corinne!” my mother says, leaning against the kitchen counter for stability. “You can’t say that. No one says that.”
“Yes,” she says shamefacedly. “No one does say anything like what I say. It’s been my downfall.”
“It’s all right,” Jeremy says. “Because I am queer. I’m, like, a total fag. And now this queer is going upstairs. Goodbye.”
Off he goes, clumping noisily away from us. I’ll let him sit up there for a minute before I go up to talk to him.
“Anyhow,” Lucy says, “the word is ‘gay.’ You can’t say ‘queer’ unless you are queer.”
“They’re the same, aren’t they? Those words?” Corinne asks, trying to smile. I truly wish she would stop talking.
“Well, what’s really interesting,” Astrid says, suddenly turning around and facing us, “is why Jeremy would say that he’s gay when all the evidence is to the contrary. And there’s been quite a bit of evidence already, Corinne, though you wouldn’t know that.”
“No, I wouldn’t know,” Corinne responds.
“Tell her about Alissa,” Lucy says to her mother. “Little Miss Princess? The pink stockings? The locket? The bunny factory?”
“No, we’re not going into that,” Astrid says.
“At least he didn’t get her pregnant,” I say helpfully, because he didn’t. They used condoms.
“But he could of,” Lucy says proudly. “If he had tried.”
“This is so the wrong topic,” Astrid says. “Corinne, you must be very tired. We’re all surprised to see you, as no doubt you know, and I suppose you’d like a glass of water. Are you hungry? Thirsty? The salmon will be ready soon, and we’ll all sit down to eat. I wish you had given us a bit of notice. And we’ll have to catch up on all your news!” Astrid tries a smile.
“I don’t have any news,” Corinne says. “Well, I mean, it’s all news, it’s all news to me. What isn’t news? This bright shiny kitchen is news! And Lucy: you certainly are the newest thing. I feel like someone in a Russian novel, to tell you the truth.” She looks at all of us, one by one. “Oh, have pity on me,” she says, and then she begins to cry, and all the women move toward her.
Once I’m upstairs, I knock on Jeremy’s door. He doesn’t say “Come in,” but I go in anyway. I’ll spare you the details of his room. He’s lying on his bed with his eyes closed. His shoes are off, and his big feet are sticking up at the end of the bed in their white socks, and he has an arm flung across his face, covering his eyes. I am amazingly proud of my son. I love him so much, but I have to hide it.
“Jeremy,” I say. “You’ll have to come back down eventually.”
“Because it’s unfair. She’s unfair. I mean, she’s, like, crazy. And I . . . and I’m supposed to love her, or something? Because she was once my mother? Fuck that.”
“I need to say something to you,” I say. “I just can’t think of what.”
“Please, Dad. None of that wisdom shit, okay? I hate wisdom. I just fucking hate it.”
“Okay,” I say. “You’re in luck. I don’t have any.”
“That’s good. Can we talk about something else? No, I know: let’s not talk.”
So we don’t talk for a minute or two. Then Jeremy says, “You know, this isn’t so bad.”
“Oh, having your mother show up and act crazy. That’s not so bad. I mean, you know how I’m studying world geography now?”
“And, like, the point of world geography is not where the countries are, but what people actually do, you know? I mean, take a country like, for example, Paraguay. You know where Paraguay is, right?”
I nod. But I actually don’t know where it is. Near Bolivia?
“So,” and here he sits up, “so, okay. Anyhow, Paraguay is like this nothing country in the middle of South America, and they don’t even all speak Spanish there, but this weird Indian language like Sioux except it’s South American, but the point is, when you look at conditions, it’s not all happy days down there. Well, maybe it’s happier now. But what our textbook said? Was that they had, you know, torture parties there. Once. Where torturers get drunk and turn the dial up to eleven. Like they did in Chile. And Argentina. People get their fingernails pulled out and electrodes and stuff. I read about it. I’ve been reading about it. Torture. Like in Cuba, and in Europe when it was medieval? And in Russia. They’d hook you up to an electric board and zap you. And your body would dance around on the electric table. Total pain. I mean, compared to torture, this is nothing.” He lies back on his pillow. He closes his eyes. “My mother showing up and being crazy? That is nothing. That’s not even waterboarding.”
He gives me this lecture while staring at me with great bravery.
I go back downstairs, and the five of us have dinner. Jeremy doesn’t join us. That night, lying in bed and looking up at the ceiling fan in the dark of our bedroom, Astrid and I agree that I will have to investigate halfway houses for Corinne, and I will have to get her to a shrink so her moods can be stabilized.
The next morning, Jeremy does not join us for breakfast, and when I look outside, his bicycle is gone. And then, somewhat to my surprise, Corinne reappears in the morning light uncomplaining, saying that she experienced a good sleep. What will my ex-wife do all day? My mother says that she will look after Corinne for now. Perhaps they will go for walks, and my mother will expound about Jesus and how He is coming again to gather us up. As for Jeremy, he can’t be upset forever. Lucy gives me a goodbye-daddy kiss before she boards the school bus. She seems unaffected by recent events, but then Corinne is not her mother, and she probably wants life to get back to normal.
That afternoon around four o’clock, as I am writing up a repair order on a faulty water pump, Jeremy comes bicycling into the garage. He looks around and sniffs appreciatively. He surveys the containers of brake fluid shelved in the Parts Department. I don’t want him to give me any shit in here in front of my co-workers, so I don’t smile although I am glad to see him.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he replies. He takes off his helmet and shakes out his hair. He’s impressive: you can see why girls love him.
I put down my ballpoint pen. We walk into the customers’ lounge and sit down on two vinyl chairs in the corner, next to a table on which are scattered old issues of Field & Stream and Cosmopolitan. All the customers are gone, so we’re there alone. Jeremy stares at me for a moment, as if it’s my fault that I met Corinne in the first place and made love to her eighteen years ago, so that he was born.
“Dad, I’m fucked up,” he says. “And it’s really fucked up that she’s here. I’m just saying.”
“I know,” I reply. “It’s hard on all of us.”
“Not as hard on you as it is on me. I didn’t think I could go back home today.”
“Where else could you go?”
“Somewhere,” he says. “Friends.” It’s true: he has many friends he could stay with. “I could actually, like, move out.” He waits. “But I’m not going to.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask. I have neither wisdom nor advice for him. All I have is curiosity.
“So I went to school this morning? And I found Alissa. I mean, we’re over, but we’re still friends, sort of. And I’m like, ‘My birth mom showed up, and she’s fucking nuts, and also she said I looked gay,’ and Alissa is like, ‘Yeah, wow, but she’s your mom and thinks you’re cute and you’re way not gay,’ and I go, ‘Who gives a shit?’ and she’s, ‘You should,’ and I say, ‘But she’s crazy,’ and this is when Alissa sort of gets that lightbulb look and says, ‘Well, the cool thing would be to put it all on your Tumblr. That’d be so great. ’Cause if your birth mom’s so weird and interesting, everybody will want to read it. Like: ‘Guess what, everybody, my mom showed up.’ ”
Somehow I have the feeling this has become a huge business with his friends within the past few hours and that they all have opinions about what he should do.
“And?” I ask.
“That’s what’s weird,” he says. “Like half of my friends already want to know if she’s got a blog herself. Because they want to check it out, like right now.”
“Maybe you could help her with a blog,” I say, trying to mediate. “Maybe you could help her set one up.”
“Yeah, I guess I can do that. But I have to hate her for a few more days.” He sits there quietly. “I have to really hate her a few days. I know she’s crazy. I get that. But I have to hate her for not being loyal to us.” He used that word: us. As much as I love Astrid, she didn’t use that word last night. It was all you: you have to do this or that.
So I tell Jeremy that he can hate Corinne for a while, and then he has to give it up.
The hatred lasts longer than we think it will. In the meantime we get Corinne to a psychiatrist, who puts her on lithium. There are no discernible effects at first.
Corinne tries to be inconspicuous down there in the basement and at dinnertime. I’ll give her credit for that. It’s hard for her, however, because right out of the blue at dinner she’ll start talking about wildlife creatures, some of them imaginary, that no one has mentioned in conversation. Wolves and bears figure prominently in her thinking, and all the while Jeremy is seething over there at his place at the table. He stares at Corinne with distaste as he bolts down his food before he rushes upstairs and slams his bedroom door.
Three weeks later the atmosphere in the house begins to shift subtly, as if a low-pressure system had arrived after a long period of drought. One evening I am coming up the stairs and I see Jeremy and Corinne talking on the upstairs landing. Then, two days later, I see her in his room, sitting at his desk in front of his computer, and Jeremy is standing behind her, quietly giving her advice. I know better than to ask them what’s going on, so I knock on Lucy’s door and go in there. Lucy hears everything that’s going on in the house before anyone else does. It’s true that she likes to preach, but she has the soul of a Soviet spy.
“Hi, Princess,” I say. She’s lying on the bed reading a Harry Potter book.
“Hi,” she says.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Um, yeah.” She has her head propped up by an arm under her chin. On her wall she has a poster of some ballet star up on her toes surrounded by other pink-tutu-clad ladies. Adhesive stars decorate Lucy’s ceiling, and her lifelong doll, Eleanor, gazes at her with glassy plastic eyes from the bookshelf. Lucy continues to read while she talks to me.
“What’s going on between Corinne and Jeremy? Do you know?”
“You should ask them.”
“I can’t,” I say.
“So,” she says, putting the huge novel aside and looking up at me, “he’s helping her with Runaway Mom.” She waits for my reaction, and when I don’t say anything, she says, “He got tired of hating her. He decided she wasn’t going to go away.”
“What’s Runaway Mom?”
“That’s her blog,” Lucy says, sitting up and stretching, “He’s helping her with it. It’s going to be real popular. All the kids at school want to read it.”
“Daddy, didn’t you ever want to run away?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t think I ever did.”
“That’s weird,” she says. “Everyone else does.”
Corinne lives across town now, in a little one-bedroom apartment. My mother goes over there on Friday and takes her to Bible class. Corinne gets disability payments from the government, although we worry that those funds will soon be cut off. She comes over here once or twice a week for lunch or dinner. Everyone is mostly getting used to her and her ways, but Astrid has taken up smoking cigarettes (though not my brand) on the front lawn after dinner, a bold move for a woman in midlife.
One time I went to Corinne’s blog. Just one time. I opened up Runaway Mom, and I read what Corinne had written there a day or two before.
How many chapters does life have? It has many chapters, and you’ll notice that when the passenger train you’re on is headed in the wrong direction, it’s often moving so fast that you can’t get off it without hurting yourself. I threw myself off the particular train I was on and was seriously injured for years. I wish I knew what God wanted from us. I don’t think He wants anything from me anymore, but I think He once did, and He said so. Sometimes you run away to leave something behind, and sometimes you run away to get somewhere. I did both. At least I didn’t kill myself. At least I didn’t murder anyone.
That was all I wanted to read of her blog. I went out to the garage and opened a beer and smoked a few cigarettes out there in silence. I was thinking.
One time when I was a boy I took my sled out to one of the city parks. This was the day after a huge snowfall, many inches, but the sledding hill was packed down by the time I got there, and quite a few kids had their boards and saucers and sleds, and they were all screaming happily. I climbed up that hill and flew down on my sled, and after about thirty minutes I was screaming happily too. I was out there so long I got frostbite on the tips of my toes, and when I came home my mother put me into the bathtub with lukewarm water. I was so happy, I didn’t care about the frostbite, and it didn’t hurt too much. It just burned. And I didn’t think I would remember that day — you don’t really think you’re going to remember those times when you’re happy — but I did. It’s funny, the staying power of happiness. I finish my cigarette and put out the stub in the empty beer can.
I can hear Astrid calling to me out the back door. “Wes?” she says. “Wes? Where are you?”
“Out here,” I yell from the garage.
“Come in, honey,” she calls to me. “It’s suppertime.”
So I get up from the floor and go into the house where they are all waiting for me.
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Charles Baxter: