So I get a call from the neighbor next door to mom—I don’t recognize her name or know for that matter how she got mine because I haven’t been able to bring myself to visit mom’s house since the last time we argued and that was so long ago—and she says all panicky that she looked through the letter slot in mom’s front door and saw a slipper sticking up funny and there was a foot in it.
I say I’ll have to leave work and god knows they won’t like it but I can be there in an hour if the damn traffic goes my way, and she says she already called 911 and they came and took mom to Harborview, which is not where they take cuts and bruises so I say shit is she alive?
The neighbor says of course as if I were dense, and I hate her officiousness and that she was there and not me and she says that my mom’s quite an elegant and wonderful character and then I say balls. She sounds shocked. And then says well there was quite a bit of yelling and thrashing, and they had to strap her arms and legs in a gurney to get her out of the house, but the yelling is understandable because a broken ankle hurts a lot. Even though I don’t know this woman from Adam my mouth is too full of bitterness so I spit it out: she fell down the stairs of that ratty old house, I knew she would, in those stupid damn slippers, god dammit.
I’m going to die in my house and they can’t keep me out of it. Bah. I will scream. I did scream! We’re in this together, the house and I, and it doesn’t really matter which of us falls and breaks first.
I hear Harold in the walls, the swing jazz trumpet he played, the standards, the boogies, the two-beat old songs. Heart and Soul, Take the A Train. Since I Fell for You. The smell of his felt hat, the scotch in short glasses. It was my house, but he put it on like a coat, altered it to fit, and when he died left his scent and his sound and his soul in it. I will wrap its warmth round me until I don’t need warmth anymore.
On a block of post-war one stories, on cheap land south of Seattle, this house, that I bought with the soldier’s insurance money from Victoria’s father, was square and plain as the houses in that Monopoly game. My future looked plain then, too: a widow with a small child whose father came home from Viet Nam in a box. But I did have the house.
Then Harold came into my life, and though he was much older, something about the round mushroom soup mellowness of the tone of his trumpet, the soft strength of his fingertips, his deep chuckle late in the evening, brought back my youth. We added a second story—ours became the tallest home on the block! —and he painted it yellow. Stardust, On the Sunny Side of the Street. On the top story we put down a wood dance floor and sound-proofed the walls. Musicians from all over the city—white players like him, but more Black ones, whom Harold had met on Jackson Street in the forties—used to climb up the stairs with their bulky instrument cases and jam in our aerie into the wee hours.
He died thirteen years ago—when you marry a hard-drinking, night-living musician twenty years older you have to expect to be the one left behind—but when I am quiet in the house I still hear him. I hear the music of him in the house’s shape, in its height, in its paint. In the carpets we chose together and the kitchen appliances that were all we could afford in 1972 when we married. The oven door squeaks in the very same way that it did when we first cooked a chicken. When it rains the front room window still fogs over as if with his breath. The steep stairs creak in the very same places they did when he built them, as if he’s playing background riffs to accompany my ascents and descents. When the furnace coughs to life I feel his arms around me. I smell him in the whiff of aftershave and hot dust.
In short, it is my goddamn life and my goddam man and my goddamn house and I will be goddamned if I don’t die in its arms. That is what I said to the ambulance fellow. That is what I said to the doctor in the busy, white-tiled hospital. That is what I said to this young woman neighbor whose name I’ve forgotten, the one from the house next door who says she plays the piano, and that is what I’ve said time and time again to that Nervous Nellie, my daughter.
And by the way they are my goddamn slippers.
Sudden rain slices at the highway and my wipers are shot so I’m hunched forward peering the whole way with my hands clutched and traffic is horrible, but I make it to the hospital where of course there is no place to park except on a floor in a parking garage that says seven dollars for the first half hour. What does that mean? It will take me at least half an hour to find mom in the hospital. How much will it cost after that?
I rush along a lot of corridors that lead to the wrong wings and my shoes are clattering and the raincoat slung on my arm flaps as I hurry, it trails droplets all down the hallway, and when I finally get to the right place and grab a nurse, she says not only is mom’s ankle broken but that she’s dehydrated and malnourished. She looks at me hard and says how did this happen?
I explode. I say perhaps my mother’s house has a broken-down roof that small animals sometimes get into, with leaking windows opaque with condensation and mold and a steep staircase built badly without permits by my stepdad fifty years ago, and that I’ve tried and tried but mom won’t get anything changed or fixed because he built it. I say she trips over everything she can no longer pick up but she complains when I clean or bring groceries or cook because I make too much noise and I disturb all his things. I say she eats nothing but mushroom soup and she still takes the garbage to the back lane by herself and how is she going to do that anymore and she won’t get a maid to even straighten her kitchen or the oh so disgusting toilet and she can’t afford a maid anyway and neither can I. I am gulping and heaving and I yell I can barely pay for my old car and my clothes, not to mention accessories so my boss will stop telling me I need to look more put together, but my mother refuses to sell her huge house in an area near downtown Seattle that is suddenly posh—which would pay for a first-class care home for the rest of her life—and oh yes I say as my voice rises, she insists on going up and down stairs in half-century-old footwear and next time what’s going to happen?
A nurse’s aide in a pale blue dress comes up, and her face is midnight black and shines as if she is young, but she has crinkles at the corners of her large eyes, like she has smiled and cried and got furious more times than fit into her years. She lays her hand on my arm and I look at her and think perhaps she actually knows how I feel, and she smiles and says, lady, breathe.
Strangely, I do.
I tend to forget about breathing.
She takes my wet straggling coat, and I walk with her to the room. Mom is there, shriveled in a white-sheeted bed. It’s been ages since I saw her lying down. I don’t remember her being so small.
There’s a window, and parked under it, a four-legged walker with gray rubber feet. There’s a table with red Jell-O and a blue plastic chair. I go and I sit in the chair, and I take off my slapping, sloppy-heeled shoes.
I whisper, Mom.
And we sit there for a while in the quiet.
But then I remember my car, how it’s costing some insane amount every half hour, and I put my hand on her arm and although I am scared I am glad she fell because now I can say, Now you have to go to a care home.
And damn if she doesn’t answer with her eyes still closed Give me that walker.
Mom, you’re not going home again, I’m sorry.
Like hell I am not.
I take the walker away and she starts shrieking at me and I grab up my sogged shoes and start to stomp out in my bare feet but my bag slips off my shoulder and I look around for my coat and accidentally swing the walker around like a club and she screams, Why are you like this?! and she throws the red Jell-O.
I never understood her. Not when she was little, running about snot-nosed and obnoxious, her fly-away-hair sizzling up again under my smoothing hand. Certainly not now, when she shows up flapping and dripping and damn near hyperventilating. Trying to tell me again — after she hasn’t even been inside it for who knows how long, hasn’t heard it, hasn’t smelled it or seen it or helped with it — that I have to abandon my house. How dare she. What does she know?
I call Hi! to the Nurse’s Aide with the wise eyes who comes in with a mop and make her stop cleaning up Jell-O and help me get up. She fetches the walker from where my daughter flung it when she ran away blubbering. My foot is strapped into some kind of ridiculous boot. The contraption is heavy, and when I lean on the aide and sit up, pain knifes up my leg. I gasp. I pant. I wait for it to pass.
Victoria was always painfully awkward. When she was small, even her tears were awkward: cheeks puffed, nose red, her whole face moist and as unpleasant as overripe fruit. The clothes I bought her wouldn’t hang straight. She didn’t know how to talk to people. She never had any grace, any rhythm or smoothness. When our top floor was jamming, the music flowing like honeyed liquor, I’d get her out of bed and carry or, later, drag her by the arm up the stairs. And we’d crouch there, listening. I’d tell her who was playing, about their lives and why they sounded like they did, and that Harold was the best of them all, the way his melodies swirled and shimmered, the way he hung, suspended, on the very edge of the beat, sticking like molasses to the pulse of the trap set. I tried to tell her about swing rhythms and brushes, shuffles and rim shots, how the melodies wove over the chords and seamed with the beat. How you could tell Harold from any other trumpeter who might be sitting in, just by the way he led up to his high notes, by the growl and rasp of his blues. The way he turned a simple melody inside out. Sentimental Journey, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Paper Moon. But she just stood stiffly, with my arms around her, her disobedient wisps of hair tickling my nose.
Harold didn’t know how to talk to her either. He bought her a clarinet but after the first time, all those squeaks and confusions, it stayed in its case in the hall under the stairs. He gigged every night; by the time she would get home from school and have dinner he was usually gone. He wrote her a song. Victoria, he called it, because he couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. It was in the frenetic new style that I never liked, the melody full of unexpected highs and lows smoothed only by his lilting tone: startling, counterintuitive, agitated bebop.
Just thinking about my daughter makes me feel contrary and determined. I haul myself up and stand at the side of the hospital bed, and there’s a red smear on the floor and the pain sways like a ballad. The aide says I think it’s too early lady, and I say Bah and right after that maybe is when I fall into her arms.
So I go home and even though my mom’s question sticks in my head the way the red goo is stuck to my dress, I sleep through the night for the first time in years.
I don’t think of the pot of canned soup I saw molding on my mother’s counter the last time I was there, the newspapers and mail slicking to the floor, the threadbare slippers I once threw in the trash and that she took out again, furious. I don’t think about how I said I couldn’t stand to see her living like this or how she replied then you don’t need to come you’re not welcome here and how I yelled was I ever? I sleep, because it is one night, at least, that she isn’t alone.
But of course the phone wakes me early there is an emergency at work my supervisor says come in come in now we’ll talk culpability later right now put out the fire. So I have a rush of a morning and the paperwork is all over the place and my boss says can’t you keep it together Victoria you’re really on your last legs here. But I take off on my lunch hour anyway thinking maybe I’ll make it back before any more shit hits the fan, and I’m thinking keep it together keep it together you’re really slipping, and everything in life always feels like such a damn rush just to keep from staying in the same place or falling down. I get to the hospital and all the good parking spots are long gone if there ever were any and I’m not going in that parking garage again so help me. I park my car on a side street so far away I have to walk twenty minutes in the shoes that pinch my right toe, because the only other decent pair that I have was still damp from yesterday’s rain. And I’m limping and hurrying and worrying and thinking why are you like this, why am I like this?
Young people don’t understand about pain. Pain always passes. Like a song, dissolving in minutes into memory’s air. Like night into morning. Victoria’s father didn’t come home and all I got was a telegram and a check. The agony was confounding, halting both my brain and my body, but it did end.
Dull light comes from the window, someone moans in the next bed, I open my eyes and stare at the tile ceiling. A lunch trolley clatters in the hallway. After a spell I grab the walker and try again to stand. A knife serrates up my leg, but it’s not quite as bad. Another Nurse’s Aide comes in with a tray and I shake my head and point at my purse and she hands it to me. I hand her back a curse because when I reach out for it the blade in my ankle twists. She says, You’re not ready. But it’s just pain, and even though it makes me gasp when I take a step forward, it will be gone when I get back to my house.
I am not spending another night in hospital.
My Victoria doesn’t understand about pain, either. She is always trying to make things easy for me. She wants me to go live in some Home, some place without stairs that lead up to the place I can hear the old songs more clearly. Someplace where they serve meals on plastic trays and play games and do puzzles. She doesn’t understand pain or music. I tried to teach her. I tried to explain, but she could never remember the names of the songs, hear the chord changes, recognize the different beat patterns. She just grew up awkwardly and high-tailed it away from home as soon as she could.
When I get back to my house, I will see from the front window the power lines and the neighbor’s fir tree, and behind it a glimpse of highway that leads to downtown and to Jackson Street. Robins perched on the power line will sing that old Starduster’s tune, A Little Bird Told Me. The one something about fallin’, fallin’ for no one but you. And maybe the lady next door will be practicing, a simple arrangement for beginning pianists. I will sit in Harold’s favorite chair, smell its worn leather. There’s a mark on the wall near the chair where Harold once turned around too quickly while holding his trumpet case. An oblong indent. I will run my fingers over it, feel the small depression in the rectangular shape where the screw on the metal end bracket of the case dinged the plaster. Harold sometimes danced as he went out the door, just a few steps to get in the mood for whatever gig waited across the bridge in the clubs lining the old cobbled streets. I will touch the wall and remember the time he danced a little too close to it. Sentimental Journey, I’ll Never Smile Again. The house holds my memories; if I can’t live there I will lose them.
It takes me a fair while of stepping, lifting that god-awful boot, and then resting along the busy, white-tiled hallway. Aides see me twice and tell me to get back in bed, but I finally head down a side hallway where no one stops me, and I get to a door that says Stairs. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. You Stepped Out of a Dream. I almost hear the opening chords, the soft sound of my husband preparing his entrance by breathing warm air into the brass.
I get back to the hospital room and happily the Jell-O is long gone but I look around and so is my mother. I ask, have they taken her for some kind of tests and a nurse looks just a shadow of confused and I search the room and mom’s purse is gone and I start to raise holy hell. Nurses whisper and rush here and there with those white rubbery shoes, my blood pounds in my head and like a nightmare I run down long hallways, the plastic beads of my necklace bounce against my chest, and I remember what my boss said and I think put together, put together, and the beads whack my collarbone like the frantic beat of a song.
I lean on my good leg and manage to get the door open, and then I go into the stairwell. There’s a railing. I lean on that and look down. And it’s too far, and too steep. It’s echo-y and too empty, and my feet in their thin hospital stockings are cold. I wish for my worn, warm slippers. I wish for the strength I had when I was young, and I think for the first time that I am not only old but too old. A song comes into my head, with a disjointed melody, odd and jumpy and yet I hear in its leaping stumbling and panting a sweet, sweet longing, and loyalty, too. And then I really do hear heaving breaths and an irregular pounding of heels. Someone grabs hold of me and starts crying.
I say, Harold?
I remember the nights I couldn’t sleep, and she held me and we climbed the stairs, listening at the door. The four kinds of trumpets, the low laugh between songs, the clink of glass and ice, her arms that so rarely came around me, smelling of candy floss. The music sounded to me, and still does, like a closed door. Neither malevolent nor unkindly locked, but simply flat. My mother listened raptly, in love with Harold, and I listened as best as I could to her, but there was little for me on the other side of that door, little for me in that house. Although, once, Harold wrote me a tune. I remember the weird feeling of recognition when I heard the jumpy melody; unlike all the other songs he played, mine never smoothed out or came to rest, was never calming. Perhaps I would have grown up anxious and agitated and out of place no matter what roof I was under. Or perhaps I’ve always felt out of breath like I was trying to play that dreadful clarinet, or running a race I was perpetually losing, because no one in that house ever put me first.
I’m standing right there when Mom calls my stepfather’s name again and I slap her.
In the motion, and in its end, I decide I am tired of trying so hard. I hiss, “Mom, for once can’t you listen to me?”
The pain on my cheek resonates in the stairwell. The side of my face throbs, but after a while the rippling echoes smooth into silence and I see her.
I put my hand on her hair and it is gray, as if the color faded from it as I reached out. She is older than I was when I birthed her. She has worked hard but not gotten ahead, she has run in a frenzy from one thing to the next without hardly stopping to draw breath or pleasure. She has worried about many things but never found something to love or to cling to. She is odd, out of place, as she always has been, a stranger to me and herself. You’ll Never Know. You Always Hurt the One You Love. I’m sorry, I say. I tried as hard as I could. I didn’t try near hard enough. I mourned one husband too long and loved the other too much, and you fell in the cracks between them. My fingers comb through her hair as through gauze, through a memory, like trying to grab and hold onto sound.
I take her home.
I hear something when I open the door, a musical high-pitched keening. I settle mom in the leather chair by the window, with her booted foot up, saying remember you promised no fussing. She says Bah, I say you have some balls lady and I smile a little as I start to clean up. The bell rings, I open the door in a cloud of dust and garbage much worse than I remember and it’s the neighbor woman who says oh I was just checking I saw lights. She is young and coiffed and she says again, your mother is so elegant, while I hold a bag full of cookie wrappers and soiled Depends. Then she says, I have been bringing her soup. And I feel a strange catch of air in my throat and I say that is very kind and I mean it. And while she is talking, the high-pitched keening is distracting me, so when I shut the door I go follow it. The sound is louder near the stairs so up I go and they’re slippery and steep and there’s a sort of chattering scolding and then some disjointed, tonal sounds: there’s some kind of bird in the wall.
I go back downstairs and I say mom. Mom. There’s a bird in the wall. And she looks at me, and she says no it’s a trumpet. I call an exterminator, and they say call animal control, and I clean while I wait and although it takes basically the rest of the afternoon I am feeling uncommonly calm. Sooner or later some guys with boots come and there’s shuffling and discussing and they take out the bird which I am guessing is dead now and they look around and the place still smells bad and while I ignore them they glare at me just like the first nurse did, the one who asked how did this happen?
My boss phones and says you chose a really bad day to just take off like this on top of everything else. There’s been too many catastrophes lately. You are out of chances.
I exhale. It feels lovely. I do it again. I go to mom in her chair and kneel in front of her. I put a slipper on her good foot, and I say mom, I’m going to stay in my old room. I say mom, it’s OK, the bird’s gone now.
I stay there a long while. I start to notice my chest rise and fall, and hers too. All I can hear is our breathing. And after a while it’s like the house is breathing around us and with us and maybe even through us. The furnace coughs on like a warm exhale of tobacco and I am reminded of something, and I start to hum.