By Greg Ames
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Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place…. Nothing outside you can give you any place…. In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.
—Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
On Vancouver Island, Ruth Benedict tells us, the Indians staged tournaments to measure the greatness of their princes. The rivals competed by destroying their belongings. They threw their canoes, fish oil and salmon eggs on the fire, and from a high promontory, hurled their cloaks and pots into the sea.
Whoever got rid of everything, won.
—Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
small business owner
When twenty-six psychiatric hospitals in New York City were “depopulated”—meaning completely shut down, everybody out!—sometime in the early 1980s, I can’t remember the exact year, the released patients were handed one-way bus tickets out of town. The last stop on each ticket was Buffalo. Thousands of mental patients left Manhattan in the middle of the night. They could have gotten off anywhere along the way. In any of those dead upstate towns. They were probably confused, though, and terrified and all doped up. So they just rode for nine hours, staring out the windows, until the drivers parked at the Seneca Street Station and kicked their asses out. “Last stop. Buffalo.”
Almost all of them ended up right here on Elmwood Avenue and joined our indigenous population of kooks. In those days, you know, the Reagan years, the insane were out in full force. I don’t know if you remember this, James—maybe this was before your time—but they were like a traveling theater troupe. We began to watch for our favorite routines. The Thorazine Lean. The Hermaphrodite’s Striptease…. Who else? The black-toothed Walking Man. Remember that guy? He wore dirty wool trousers and a dirty sport coat, but he was weirdly handsome when he kept his mouth closed, Native American–looking, strong face, great hair, glossy black hair. He would just stop suddenly on a corner and pose like a runway model, one hand on his jutting hip, grinning his crazy I’m-not-taking-my-meds grin. Sometimes he would flip his sport coat over his shoulder and prance back and forth, his chin held high. I loved watching them. They seemed to know how absurd everything was. They were trying to show us.
I opened this shop twenty-six—no, twenty-eight years ago now. I have sold everything here: animal hides, jewelry, records and tapes, CDs, drug paraphernalia, vintage clothing, you name it. I used to be on the corner of Elmwood and West Utica, but I moved here back in 1986 and I’ve been here ever since. Maybe it was 1985…. Well but anyway, I remember there was a major shift in the aesthetic around that time. All the artists, the true artists, were moving out of town. Some of them landed in Allentown, and that’s when Allen Street started to get hip again, but many of them just split. They all went down to the City. All my friends. Jobs were scarce around here, you know? There’s a true Buffalo story for you. We basically traded our best young artists for New York’s most hopeless rejects. That’s pretty sad. But I guess that’s more or less every small city’s story.
I park my rental car outside the Elms and sit without moving, hands resting on the steering wheel, for almost twenty minutes. I’m listening to a CD I made six years ago. In my early twenties I wanted to document the story of my hometown the way Studs Terkel had tackled labor in America, but I abandoned the project, like everything else I ever started, about halfway through.
For two years I carried a digital voice recorder in the back pocket of my jeans. Calling myself an urban ethnographer, I conducted over a hundred interviews with drunks in dive bars, blue-collar kids who grew up near Buffalo’s abandoned factories, artists and musicians and athletes who would never become famous and an array of local jokers and knuckleheads. I was not interested in hearing from the winners, I thought. At that time I had a pretty loose definition of what winning meant, but I’m sure it involved easy wealth and unwarranted prestige. I was a reverse snob. If you had earned your victory through hard work and discipline, you were okay by me, but if your whole life had been handed to you and you took your good fortune for granted, I thought you could go to hell. Then I moved to Brooklyn for a better job and have lived in New York City ever since. All I have left of my early ethnographical efforts is a single CD, a greatest-hits compilation of voices that I’ve spliced together.
I can’t sit out here all morning, hiding in the parking lot, so I cut Glory off when she starts talking about zoning laws and trash collection. I pull out the key, slam the door and head for the front entrance. Carrying a potted geranium that I’ve been assured won’t require much attention, I remind myself to be friendly and patient with the staff. I leave my suitcase and my library book, Assisted Suicide for Dummies, in the backseat of the car. In the lobby of the Elms, I stamp snow off my boots and sign the guest book with numbed fingers. Then I ride the elevator down to the D-Unit, where I’ll find my mother.
Parked in a corner, she seems oblivious to everything going on around her. Her yoga pants are on backward, and she’s wearing an orange polyester blouse that definitely belongs to someone else. In honor of today’s holiday, one of the staff members has put makeup on her face: blue eyeshadow, pink lipstick, rouge on each cheek. She looks like a drunken clown. Carefully I approach her from the front so she can watch me advance. I don’t want to startle her by dropping an alien hand on her shoulder.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom,” I say, crouching beside her chair.
Wheaten hair, no longer color-treated, sits choppy and deranged over her outraged face. It’s a hairstyle she never would have chosen for herself. She opens her eyes and focuses on me through the flecked lenses of her glasses. She stares with inscrutable attention, a ferocious look, before turning her head, lips pursed, as if she has seen nothing at all.
I press her hands together between my palms. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.” I address her in a spirited, false voice.
She turns her head and smiles at me, as if for the first time. “Jammer,” she says happily. She seems to recognize me now. “Janitor,” she says.
Her legs are twisted awkwardly, her hips canted to one side. Because she can no longer walk on her own, they use a Hoyer Lift—a sort of crane for human beings—to hoist her out of bed and drop her into her wheelchair. The Elms is considered to have one of the best dementia units in New York State.
Looking away from her, I inspect the geranium’s pink flowers. The girl in the flower shop called it a hardy, low-maintenance plant that blooms in minimal light. I hope that’s true because she talked me out of the bird of paradise and the zebra plant.
D-Unit is crowded today. Smiling holiday visitors trudge alongside slow-wandering residents. Small hushed groups gather in the cafeteria and in the Common Room. A middle-aged man in a black suit encourages his decrepit father to put his socks back on. “Let’s slide these on your feet, Slugger,” he says, bending over his dad. “Here we go. One at a time.”
A thirty-year-old brunette with pigtails and a bandaged eyebrow appears beside us. “Mind if I take her in now?” she says to me.
“Not at all. I’ll follow you.” I gather my coat and stand up, allowing her to pass in front of me. “Is there assigned seating?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s real organized.” She wheels my mother into the cafeteria. “This is party central in here.”
“Is that a war wound?” I nod at her bandaged eyebrow. “I hope one of the residents didn’t…” I hope my mother didn’t do that to you.
“Oh, this?” She touches her forehead. “No, no, no. We’re not allowed to show our piercings during work hours. We have to keep ’em covered up.”
“Wait, I think Ellen’s in the Nature Room today,” says Marianne, a good-looking woman in her mid-forties. She has gray-blue eyes and gray bobbed hair and a youthful face. Marianne looks like a twenty-year-old frozen in ice. If the nursing home is an engine, she is the fuel injector. Everybody moves a little quicker when she’s around. She seems to be in perpetual motion, even when she’s seated or standing still. On the first day we brought Mom here, Marianne welcomed us and told us to call her directly if we needed anything. “Sorry, Jean, yeah,” she says, and looks up from her clipboard. “First table. Nature Room.”
Jean swings the chair around in a tight arc and heads for the Nature Room. The muted TV in the corner of the room is tuned to the Macy’s parade in New York City. The pale green walls behind the TV are decorated with framed photographs of sycamores and elms. Presumably this is why it is called the Nature Room. On the table nearest the entrance, a small paper plate indicates where I’m expected to sit. “ELLEN + 1 guest” is scrawled in blue ink on the paper plate. “Here you go,” says the aide, parking my mother at the foot of the table.
“Thanks, Jean,” I say, making an effort to remember her name.
Jean Jelly Bean.
She points at my abandoned geranium. “Want me to bring that down to her room?”
“Would you? That would be great, Jean. Thanks.”
“Ellen, I have a drink for you, okay?” says a staff nurse. A plump, lively redhead, she holds a cup of orange juice in her hand. She leans over the chair, one hand on my mom’s shoulder. “Here you go, Ellen. Down the hatch.”
I push myself up from the chair. “I’m James.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she says. “Sheila.”
We shake hands. Tequila Sheila.
Jelly Bean Jean reappears behind the chair and places an enormous bib on my mother’s chest. It attaches with Velcro straps behind her neck. It reminds me of the lead chest protector the dentist drapes on a patient before an X-ray, except this thing is made out of cloth. Mom turns her head to see who has just placed this strange thing on her, but the woman has already disappeared.
Perry Como sings, “Empty pockets filled with love.”
The D-Unit’s boom box has some kind of beige pudding crusted to its speakers.
Marianne wheels a trolley of food into the entrance of the Nature Room. “Okay, let’s start with Ellen,” she says. “She’s a regular, I believe.” She examines a slip of paper attached to a plate. “And her son James is her guest today. He gets”—she consults another slip of paper—“a regular, too.”
Marianne’s son, her helper, carries the trays over. He’s a stooped twelve-year-old kid with curly brown hair and amber eyes. His forehead is embroidered with acne. He places a tray before Ellen with great care, making an effort not to look directly at her.
“Go ahead and start when you get your plate,” Marianne announces to the room.
I lean over and ask: “Are you ready to eat, Mom?”
She rolls the hem of her bib up her chest. “Snip…Snippy did,” she says. Then she gazes out the window, shakes her head at this bizarre language, quits, forgets and stares down at the clump of tissues in her fist. The words no longer belong to her. It’s so hard to know what she’s trying to say, what she means exactly, and it’s even harder to ask for clarification. Broken-backed glottals. A jigsaw puzzle of interpretations. Start with the border, the frame, she used to say, then work your way in. Now I am searching for meaning—snippy did, Snoopy dog, solecism. The vowels wander off like Grimm children lost in a forest.
I cut the dry white meat on my mother’s tray into tiny bites. I lift them to her mouth. She understands what is expected of her. Dutifully she unhinges her jaws and allows the plastic fork tines to enter that contested space. Tasting the food, she learns that she’s hungry. After three bites she smiles. She laughs. I feed her lumps of fluorescent orange squash and crusty stuffing and steaming hot mashed potatoes.
With the same fork I eat the food on my tray.
Mom chews each bite thoroughly. I dab her chin with a napkin. She is fifty-six years old. “Good,” I say, “good. Take your time. We’re in no hurry.”
The old woman across the table is calling her own daughter Mama.
“Eat before it turns to ice, Mama,” she says to the younger woman feeding her.
“I’m the hostess with the mostest,” Marianne calls out.
“Water,” says an old man in a ragged voice. He’s in a wheelchair at the head of the table. His skeletal left arm is crossed over his right knee, his head jerked to the side. He reminds me of one of Egon Schiele’s grotesques.
My mom eats and eats. She likes the buttered bread. She likes the coffee.
“Puh-puh-puh,” she says jovially.
“Water,” says the man again. He’s trying to feed himself, but the food keeps falling off his fork. The seat for his guest is empty. The bald, cadaverous woman parked nearest him is drooling in her sleep.
Nobody has water yet. At the moment there’s hot coffee and nothing else. Some folks have finished eating. Some haven’t been served yet. Marianne needs more assistance than her son can offer, but the rest of the staff is busy in the cafeteria serving the other residents, or they’re feeding the bedridden and infirm their pureed suppers.
“I’ll be right back, Mom,” I say.
I stand and head over to the tiny kitchen next to the nurses’ station. I pour four cups of tap water. The smell of shit and turkey fills the air. Ignore it, I tell myself. I leave one on the table before my mom. I place the second cup near the drooler. I hand off the third to the old woman’s “Mama” and bring the fourth to the old man.
“I have water here for you,” I tell him in a loud voice.
“Water,” the man says sensibly. His hands are folded in his lap, interlocked, beneath his towel-bib. Each resident wears a similar spattered cape, the standard uniform of this coalition of the forsaken.
“Okay.” I touch the rim of the cup to his lips. “I have water for you. Are you ready to drink some of this?”
The man nods. I place one hand on the back of his head, on his skull, which feels narrow and delicate, covered in its soft wisps of hair, and I tip a thin trickle of water into his mouth. The parched, pointed tip of the man’s white tongue darts forward. He swallows with a shudder of pain. Recoiling, I hold the cup in both hands. I glance around the room. Nobody’s watching. The man opens his mouth again. “Water,” he rasps. I pour in a little more. The man swallows that. For the most part I’m hoping not to choke him to death. He finishes the contents of the cup.
Meanwhile, down at the other end of the table, Mom has dropped her fork on the floor. An orange splotch of squash clings to her chin. She tugs on her bib and burps gently.
“Lucky we were given two forks,” I say, returning to my seat to resume the feeding with a clean utensil.
Marianne is now standing beside our table. She has finally gotten everyone on her trolley served. A few of the aides are carrying trays to other tables. “Ellen, remember when we were talking about the secret ingredient in my stuffing?” she says, her hand resting on my mother’s shoulder.
My mother looks up, baffled.
“When I get home, I’m dumping a bottle of wine in the stuffing,” Marianne tells me, bringing me up to speed. “I’ll let you know how it is tomorrow. We’re having a superbig gathering. Oh, here he is now, the master of disaster. Ellen, this is my son Michael.”
Michael waves sweetly, a quick swipe of the hand. He glances at Ellen, then lowers his eyes. Evidently he’s been taught not to gawk impolitely at oddities like my mother.
“I told your mom that Michael was coming to help out today,” Marianne says. “And here he is.”
“And this is my friend Lynn,” Michael says, indicating the blonde girl with braces who is trying to hide behind him. “She has to do volunteer work,” Michael says. “I do it ’cause I like it.”
“For school?” I ask Lynn.
“Girl Scouts,” she whispers, blushing. Her chapped lips close over the glittering braces.
“Well, we appreciate it,” I say. “Thanks to both of you.”
“It’s not so bad,” Michael admits, shifting his weight from foot to foot. His hands are shoved deep in the pockets of his rust-colored corduroys. “At first I was scared.”
“Me too,” I tell him. “I was scared to come here, too.”
I press the cup against my mother’s hand. “Here’s your water, Mom.” I don’t know. Maybe she wants to do it herself. Presently her eyes are unfocused. She doesn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. It’s hard for me to know when she wants help and when she wants to do it on her own. “Are you thirsty?” Her fingers wrap around the cup, and she takes it from my hand. She starts gulping the sploshing water, as if she’s trying to please me. An ounce or two dribbles out of her mouth and dampens her secondhand orange blouse. “Good work,” I say, watching her. “Jeez, you are thirsty. Everybody’s thirsty today.”
“Isn’t it super to have your son here, Ellen?” Marianne shouts.
Ellen glances in the general direction of the social worker’s alto voice. She holds the cup between forefinger and thumb: it could drop and splash at any moment.
“It…yes,” my mother manages. The presence of women pleases her. She was a nurse for over thirty years. Her face, I’ve noticed, becomes more animated when women are around.
All my girlfriends loved her. They called her for advice on dating and medical matters. “Ellen, I’ve got a swollen foot.” Or: “Ellen, this guy I’m seeing…” Mara Coursey called my mom for years after our breakup. It was unbelievable. I’d walk in and see my mother on the phone, her bare feet under her on the couch, the cord coiled around her wrist. “Oh, that was Mara,” she’d say after hanging up. “The weather in Phoenix is over a hundred and ten degrees. Can you imagine?” It didn’t strike her as odd that these women I’d dated stayed in touch with her, not with me. They sent her Christmas and birthday gifts. Their affection for Ellen taught me that I had been a fortunate child. I understood this only after I had met their overbearing and maladjusted mothers. My girlfriends showed me that the woman I had for years been rebelling against, the one I was trying to escape, was actually the one person from whom I had the most to learn. “Did you see the ducks are back?” she said, pointing to the backyard.
Now her scalp shines through her thinning hair. Her teeth are clotted with barely chewed food. More than anything I want her to have her mind back, her memory and intelligence. I want her to tell me what to do. But if even a partial recovery is impossible, as I’m told by everyone who has ever studied this disease, then my mother should be allowed to die. And who would argue with me if I decided that it was my responsibility to bring that about?
“You’re doing great, Mom,” I lie.
“Tribby,” she adds, still trying to respond to Marianne’s query. She makes a vain attempt at crossing her legs, as if we are all enjoying a nice discussion in somebody’s living room. Her left leg hangs suspended in the air for a few seconds, before she lowers it again.
“I’m using white wine,” Marianne explains to the oblivious drooler at the end of the table. “You might be tempted to argue for red, but I think I made the right choice.” Marianne has grown accustomed to having one-sided conversations. She has perfected the soliloquy. “That’s the secret to my stuffing.”
I watch with pride as my mother slurps water from her cup. She can still do it herself.
Four years ago, at a diner on Elmwood Avenue, she told me that she was contemplating suicide. “It might be best for all of us,” she said, “if I kill myself. Because I’ve seen where this leads. I’ve seen it a hundred times before.” She sipped her water, watched me over the rim. She wore no makeup or jewelry, other than her wedding ring, and her brown hair hung loose around her shoulders.
Sometimes I regretted that she had become middle-aged in her twenties. She had sacrificed too much, I felt, and might have been better off living like a brat for a few years, partying on the back of someone’s speedboat, snorting coke off a compact mirror and flinging her shoes into the ocean. She never allowed herself such indulgences. When she was sixteen years old, she decided to be a registered nurse. It was not a backup plan.
Leaning forward on her elbows, she searched my face with her eyes. “Do you understand why I’m telling you this?” she said. “I should probably do this within the year. Before it gets worse.”
I did not understand. I felt betrayed, as every twenty-four-year-old infant would, and after my initial shocked silence, I made an impassioned case against suicide. I argued persuasively and incorrectly that things would turn out fine for her. I had never read any of her writings on the subject of degenerative brain diseases. Still, I took her to school. The results of the MRI had been inconclusive, I reminded her. Suicide was not the solution. Everybody went through hard times. Her confusion and memory lapses were probably attributable to menopause, I suggested, or vitamin deficiencies. I did not go so far as to call it a sin, suicide, but I spoke with the moral rectitude of a man standing in a pulpit.
Listening politely to me, Ellen picked walnuts out of her salad. She seemed dismayed by my speech, as if she didn’t recall having mentioned suicide. She had no opinion at all on the topic. “Absolutely,” she said, humoring me. “Right, yes, that’s very true, Jimmy.”
She used a fork to eat her salad. She lifted the food to her mouth without anyone’s help. She kept her napkin in her lap.
“You’re fine,” I told her, and gulped my pint of beer. “Don’t worry.”
At the time I was working a few nights a week as a bartender. Mom and I lived in the same city—Buffalo—but I saw her infrequently. I liked knowing she was out there, it comforted me, but the actual logistics of providing support and solace were beyond me. I was getting high every night and hanging out with people I found far more interesting than my parents—the artists who made no art, the musicians whose bands never seemed to play anywhere, the stoned philosophers who recycled half-baked thoughts swiped from lyrics sheets. So I think it embarrassed my mom to tell me she was struggling. I recognize now that it was a courageous act. She hadn’t told my father. She hadn’t told any of her colleagues. And after our unsatisfying discussion, she told nobody else. She was alone with her encroaching dementia.
She retreated from the word “suicide,” never spoke it again after our lunch together. That was probably her last chance to save herself, and she let it pass. She took one for the team. Seeing that I was distraught, she tried to joke me out of it. “They shoot horses, don’t they?” she said.
Half a year later she was incapable of conceiving a plan to kill herself. The disease had already colonized the frontal lobe of her brain, and she’d completely forgotten what she’d told me. But I haven’t forgotten.
My mother stares at me now. She drops the empty cup to the floor. Abruptly she’s distracted by a noise that possibly only she can hear. Head cocked, she nods as though somebody is whispering secrets into her ear.
“Thanksgiving is my mom’s favorite holiday,” I tell Marianne, who’s still holding forth on the sagacity of using alcohol as an ingredient. “She woke up before any of us and started cooking while we were still in bed. She wore her Lea and Perrins apron all day. Didn’t even bother taking it off when she sat down to eat.”
“That’s sweet,” Marianne says, watching her son Michael and his friend Lynn fool around by the electric organ. “Mike,” she calls out.
“And when I woke up on Thanksgiving morning,” I continue, inanely, “I smelled the turkey and the pies baking. Coffee brewing. You’d already worked a half day by that point,” I say in Mom’s direction. “We always hosted Thanksgiving at our house. Everyone she’d ever met, it seemed, was invited. Sometimes thirty people showed up. You never knew who was going to pop up at the table. My kindergarten teacher, Vietnam vets, the mailman.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” Marianne says, distracted.
“It was. She rose to the occasion every Thanksgiving. Didn’t you, Mom?”
“You better believe it,” says Ellen, abruptly lucid and grinning at me.
I want to jump up and shout. Did everybody hear that? A perfect sentence. Marianne didn’t hear, though. Desperately I want Marianne to hear my mother, to know she’s real. “What did you just say?” I touch her wrist. “Say that again, Mom. Tell Marianne what you just said.”
She blinks at me and frowns.
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books