The phone call about her heart came while I ate canned peaches and contemplated the grocery list. I had not heard my land line in over a year and for a second, I thought it was some kind of alarm. Avalanche or tornado randomly went through my head for some reason, neither of which occurs in New York City. While I thought of what natural disaster the sound signified, Simon came into the kitchen and answered it. He stood and listened to someone in silence and then abruptly handed me the phone.
It was my father. We hadn’t spoken in months, and his voice sounded far away as if he held the phone at arm’s length.
“Why didn’t you call my cell?” I asked.
“I’m using the hospital phone, and I couldn’t remember it. I memorized this one when you moved.”
Then there was silence. “Your mom passed away tonight, Annalyn.”
I hung up the phone on him.
Moments or minutes or an entire hour passed before I finally I stood up from the table and said out loud, “my mother is dead.”
Simon didn’t say anything. I sat there, tapping my pen incessantly on notebook paper while my boyfriend stood over me in silence. I just sat there and continued to eat peaches.
“I have to go home,” I said.
“Of course,” Simon replied. He wasn’t very good with empathy, nor with family. I thought about whether or not I wanted him to come home with me. I didn’t.
“Does Janine know?” asked Simon.
My sister was currently traveling across the Painted Desert on a retreat with some hippies she’d met in the Village. She was always someplace else and probably wouldn’t answer her phone, for all I knew she hadn’t taken it with her. I would have to go home without her.
I pictured Janine out there in the desert, bare feet hanging out of a car window, smiling and eating Fritos. Somewhere she laughed in Arizona, ignorant that our mom’s heart had just stopped beating. Then I pictured my dad sitting there in a small, Ohio hospital, holding his head in hands. For some reason, I could not imagine my mother.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I headed out the next morning with a small suitcase and a cooler full of light beer and peanut butter sandwiches. I needed the drive. The beer would be saved for the inevitable stop at a vacant hotel somewhere off the turnpike, where I’d no doubt fill up on vending machine pretzels and watch Golden Girl re-runs–another reason Simon would not be going.
I listened to Simon and Garfunkel with a blend of the Ting Tings for much of the way back home. My mother and I were estranged for years, and I couldn’t help but misremember things. When was our last conversation? What had I said? What did her voice sound like? I mulled over a memory of her from about Hagerstown to Cumberland. She sat on our farm’s porch with her feet up on the glass coffee table, wearing dad’s red, wool, work coat while holding a coffee mug up to her nose, breathing in the steam. It was the mug Janine made for her in a high school pottery class. I felt the cool damp air of that morning and envisioned dad’s green Chevy truck coming up the road, the gravel hitting its dully painted sides. That day my mother called me crazy for wanting to leave the police force, Ohio, and all that I’d known.
“Your inability to overcome this is like a form of insanity, Annalyn. I didn’t raise you to run,” she said to me.
I turned to look at her, as if she was in the passenger seat next to me and said, “I know mom.” I suddenly longed to speak with her, to make her see I wasn’t a coward for leaving and to tell her how angry I was with her for making me feel like I was one.
That day on the porch was the first time I noticed the gray hair coming out around the sides of her head. When did my mother grow old? When did I stop playing catch with her in the front yard? When did she stop braiding my hair? All the in-between stuff, the stuff that moves a person’s life: relationships, rent checks, trips to the grocery store, filing taxes, lunch dates, and disappointments, muddled everything between that day and her death.
Heavy rain clouds atop the hills of western Pennsylvania descended with me into the rural flatlands of middle Ohio. The ground had become saturated from a couple days’ worth of rain, and as I left a motel in Columbia and headed south towards Londonderry, on two-lane highways and gravel roads, the clouds opened up again. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I turned down the music in an attempt to concentrate on what were now B-level roads. This was the fastest way to dad’s house, but the roads ahead began to completely disappear. The rental car fishtailed and spit mud from its back tires. I could no longer see where the edges dropped off and dipped into ditches. At some point, the car stopped moving forward as if it were afraid. I can’t remember now if my foot came off the pedal in trepidation of the monsoon or if the car was flooded. But either way, I believed it wouldn’t go any further, and I got out.
Usually, I have a sense of humor about these things. I laugh it off and tell the passengers to calm down, but I had no passengers. Simon, thank God, was not with me. He “unfortunately” had to be in Vegas for an important sale. He could be dramatic in crises, and my family members weren’t fans because he sold cigarettes and thought all Midwesterners were small-minded. But he never actually admitted that.
I assured myself this didn’t mean my boyfriend was a bad person. He was a well-dressed and well-educated man from upstate New York. He always explained at parties how he was a descendant of George Washington, making him some kind of American royalty. He was a staunch Republican with a collection of cigars and patriotic ties, but he was humble about his family’s money. He was ambitious but level-headed, and that’s why we worked. At some point, I stopped trying to break it off with him and accepted his steadiness and kindness as love. There was something about his sandy brown hair and the way his eyes settled on me after a long day at work that made me stay despite the fact that we were perfectly wrong for one another.
Simon met my mother once, and she thought he was too into his looks. “A man shouldn’t stare at himself that long in the mirror,” she said. That was the extent of our conversation on the matter.
And he was, too into his looks. I thought of how he would be yanking at his tie and rolling up his sleeves to get out and attempt to move the car, by actually physically trying to push it through three feet of mud. He had no real understanding of the physicality of such things like mud or fixing a car, but he could navigate any major city and seemed to know everyone, everywhere we went. He was a city boy, but he prided himself on his “the summers upstate” with his grandpa, who taught him how to be a man. I never quite understood what that meant, but it included rolling up your sleeves a lot and driving trucks and swallowing chewing tobacco to see if you could handle it. Simon drove a Lincoln pickup truck that I thought was beige, but he called, “ivory.” And coming from rural Ohio, I didn’t know how to break it to him that he didn’t own a real truck.
“It has rims,” I tried to explain to him to once, “trucks should not have rims.” I laughed a little out loud when I thought of this as I stepped into the mud, now burying my car, to get a better look at how deep it was. I glanced at my phone, knowing what I would likely see, “no service.” And at that moment, I knew I was stranded. I’d never felt so far from humanity as I did in Ohio, except for winters in Ohio. Those were worse.
This was when I began to panic. A little. I desperately wished someone would have been with me, not because they would have really helped but because they’d be worried and I could offset their fear with calmness. I am fake-poised in times like these. It’s not at all indicative of my character but of the fact that I am always trying to balance things. You can’t have two people freaking out in a car; someone has to be the navigator. My father taught me this during a family vacation in the Black Hills. We lost the brakes and were cruising downhill towards RVs and small children when he said, “see I’m calm.” Mom and Janine screamed from the back of the van. I happened to be in the passenger seat and looked over at his white knuckles. “You just have to stay calm, because they’re not,” he explained and ever so slowly engaged the emergency brake and steered the van off the road into a ditch.
I thought how terrible it would have been if my mother and Janine had kept their composure. He would have lost his shit and crashed that damn van.
The rain came down harder, and the wind began to pick up. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I would be walking the rest of the way to– somewhere. Thunder was that deep, rolling thunder, the kind that makes you think the storm is far away, but it wasn’t. It was there to stay. The Midwestern humidity was in my nose and on my skin. I could feel the atmosphere wanting to weep.
“Fucking Ford,” I said to myself. But I’d chosen to drive on a B-level road during a thunderstorm, and I knew better. I wore my funeral dress to try and stretch it out before the actual event in an attempt to feel better about the five pounds I’d gained earlier in the year. The rain soaked it straight through, and I could barely keep the heels on my feet.
I am not going to drown in mud, I thought and decided to leave my suitcase behind and walk. I knew where I was. I remembered a diner and a gas station a couple miles down the road that mom took us to on Saturday mornings when she didn’t feel like making breakfast for two kids. I wasn’t sure if it was still open, though. I hadn’t visited since before last Christmas, but it was either that or hike through a field to a farmhouse.
To be continued