Story — From the August 2013 issue

The Way Things Are Going

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Gwen was the one who had insisted that Ma and I move to America. Sooner or later, she’d said, it would happen again, it was only a matter of time. And I suppose she was right. But really it was all my fault; I should have known better than to let them in. I did know better. How many times had I read of people tied up, beaten, robbed, raped, or killed by men pretending to be the police? Or by the real police? What was the difference, once they were tying you up? And what stupidity had had me sliding off the door chain if not my infuriating habit of consideration for others?

So if anything were to blame, it was that — the manners we’d been saddled with right from the start. Even on the plane, with the aging pharmacist talking me through the history of the national parks of America, and me nodding — oh yes? oh really? — wishing him struck down right there by a stroke, even then I was thinking, I’ll never be free of this, never.

And now here we were, Ma and I — she settled into Gwen’s guest room, and me with the washing machine and the dryer on the glassed-in upstairs porch, her snoring thundering through the glass door between us.

I pushed my hair off the scar across my forehead, a new habit. It still throbbed when I was tired, a sort of memento mori, or memento stupiditi more like it, because they had told me not to look at them, told me to keep my head down or they’d shoot me right there, and still I’d looked up to ask — well, what? What was there anyone could ask of such people on behalf of one’s own life?

So that’s when the gun had come down across my forehead, slamming my face back to the floor. They’d laughed, and one squatted over me and began fingering under my skirt, considering, no doubt, whether I’d be worth the trouble of a rape. And even so, lying on the cloakroom tiles, the blood pooling under my face, I’d whispered, Please — please don’t!

And then suddenly the fingers were withdrawn and a hand grasped the back of my neck, banged my head hard, once, twice, on the tiles.

“Combeenayshin, beetch! Geev me the combeenayshin or I shoot you now!”

And so I did, hearing the numbers bubble out low and warped into the pool of blood — two left, eight right, six left — as if a giant bell had settled over me as I lay there in the damp echoing darkness of the cloakroom, with the smell of rubber raincoats and the faint barking of the Moffits’ dogs, waiting for death to come.

And only then did I remember Ma. What had they done to her up there? I’d heard the stories, horrible, ugly, monstrous stories of what they did to old women. I could hear them up there now, smashing things, grunting, banging. One was in the dining room, kicking at the liquor cabinet, and I tried to say, The key’s in my bag, because who knew what they’d do if they couldn’t get at the liquor? I did say it, but they seemed to have broken in already, I could hear the bottles clinking. Please, I prayed, please let the Moffits hear them and call the real police before they get so drunk that they rape and kill us both.

How many of them were there? Three? Four? I couldn’t tell. And when one came to stand over me and I saw his policeman’s boot, felt the urine running in a warm, stinking stream through my hair and over the gash, I wondered, in the calm way of the doomed, whether he was the fingerer, and if he was whether he had AIDS. Most of them had AIDS, people said. Most of them were high on drugs as well.

And just then the phone rang, silencing everything for a moment. The answering machine clicked on and Gwen’s voice came through. “Hey, Jo,” she said, “it’s me. You there? Gladys? Gladys, would you pick up the phone please? Hmm. Look, Jo, I’ll try again in ten minutes. If you’re not there, I’ll phone the Moffits.”

That’s when they began to quarrel, hissing and spitting at each other. One threw the phone to the floor, kicked it. They even seemed to have forgotten me as they ran here, then there, dragging things, heaving things, until at last the front door opened, letting in a draft of warm night air. And a car started up. And they were gone.

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’s memoir “Keeping Watch” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2019


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