Hyperion BooksCopyright © 2006 Andrew Bridge
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-4013-0322-8
My earliest memory of my mother was her absence.
The white clapboard house stood quiet. The sun hung in a barren blue sky. Beyond a patch of yellowing grass was a road, beyond that a great plowed field of stubble. Not a curb nor fence nor even a ditch separated them. Later, the swath of loneliness would remind me of the San Joaquin Valley, the great sink of farmland that descends across California's backside like the dent down a lying man's spine.
I was not a baby, though I had only begun to grow into a boy. Someone must have been left to watch me. Yet, the emptiness lay uninterrupted. If I had been told why I was there, I had forgotten. I remembered only that I was supposed to wait.
"I'll come back for you," my mother had said, kneeling to give me a kiss. "I'll come back for you, Andy. I promise. I'll come back."
IF I HAD answered the questions at school, if I had told the truth and been as honest as my heart had wanted, what words would have come from me? Where would I have started? Everything would have begun with Mom.
She grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, where the final stretch of the Midwest meets the Rocky Mountains. From a dusty bungalow outside Colorado Springs, she knew Pikes Peak, the summit named for Zebulon Pike-the white man who, after seeing it, tried to climb it and failed, then tried again and got lost. Nearly a century later, Katherine Lee Bates, an English teacher from Wellesley College, took a carriage to the top, announced that she had found the Gate of Heaven, and wrote "America the Beautiful" on her way back into town.
My mother's family came from the "dry land" farms in the shadow of the peak, where survival depended on grudging rain and stubborn wits. The high point of my family's wealth came when my mother's grandfather acquired a withered plot, which he passed down to her mother, Katherine Reese. The first woman in family memory to have something more than herself to bring to a marriage, Katherine chose a man who was a generation older than she and who had been gassed as a young soldier in the First World War. He widowed her with their two children: my mother, who had just reached her sixth birthday, and her brother, who was still working toward his third. The local child welfare agency suggested a children's home. In desperation, Katherine married a second man, who shortly thereafter sold Katherine's patch of dirt for promised oil royalties. When the payments never arrived, Katherine's second husband abandoned the family. Katherine had chosen poorly-twice-in a life that offered few accommodations for mistakes. Her daughter and son went in and out of children's homes while she did her best to keep them for as much of their childhoods as she could.
When my mother, Hope, was sixteen years old, she met Wade-a twenty-one-year-old outsider stationed at one of the several military bases nearby. In Katherine's words, Wade was an angry man who loved my mother selfishly. Against Katherine's wishes, my mother dated Wade for nearly a year. She left school in the middle of tenth grade. Then, in a final act of defiance, she married Wade in the town clerk's office a week after her seventeenth birthday.
Following his discharge, Wade convinced my mother to see what they could of the world in a Chevrolet station wagon. They left Colorado, traveling for months on a grand tour of America's dust bowl. When they were in Missouri, they called Katherine to announce my arrival, describing me as a blond baby boy who looked more like him than her. They did what they pleased and stayed where they wanted, paying first with the savings that Katherine gave them, then with bad checks. Outside Bakersfield, California, they were arrested for bank fraud. Barely in their twenties, they were sentenced to state prison. I was not quite four years old when I was sent to live with my grandmother, who had moved to Chicago.
Like Katherine before her, Hope had chosen badly. After her release from prison, with me safe in Chicago, my mother settled in Los Angeles, refused to return to my father, and demanded a divorce. On a bench in a public park, Wade agreed to the breakup, but on his terms. If my mother insisted on retrieving me from Katherine, Wade promised a meager monthly stipend for child support. He refused to pay alimony of any kind. There were no assets to divide. Wade declared that their agreement would remain a private one, without the intervention or enforcement authority of a court. If his young wife refused his offer, if she asked for more, if she went to a judge, Wade reminded her that, with or without legal permission, a little boy would never be hard to steal.
From her own mother, my mother knew how easily a woman could lose a child. She accepted Wade's deal, and in return, he abandoned any claim to me. She kept the boy she loved from the man she despised. Yet even with Wade gone, my mother's fear of losing me always lingered. "You have to be ready," she warned. "Someday, someone may come to take you."
"IT'S TIME TO put that away," Mrs. Gordie yelled over the television's racket from the other side of the living room. I looked up from the floor next to the sofa, noticing the darkened room for the first time. "She said she'd be here at a quarter to six. You don't want to make her wait, do you?" At my knees, an embankment of LEGOs that Mrs. Gordie and her husband had given me as an early Christmas present barely restrained a band of identical plastic dinosaurs-all branded Sinclair Oil across their bellies-that my Grandma Kate regularly stuffed in her purse for me as she left work for home.
Mrs. Gordie's form lingered in the kitchen doorway. "Come on. Let's hurry up, sweetheart." She nodded at the clock on top of the television. "Your grandmother will be here soon. Get your things in your backpack. Kindergarten means homework, doesn't it?" She pointed toward the small pile of chewed pencils and mimeographed alphabet sheets that I had pulled out, then promptly abandoned beside the front door. I shrugged at the clutter and watched Mrs. Gordie disappear back into the kitchen, leaving her husband to watch me. "You've got a birthday coming in February. Six years old means you'll be a big boy. One of the older ones in your class!" she yelled through the door as I began reluctantly dismantling the LEGO barrier. Knowing me well, she cried out again to hurry me along, "But before your birthday, you know, there could still be another present coming for Christmas!"
The Gordies had lived across the street from my grandmother and me for as long as I could remember. Every afternoon, when the school bus dropped me off at the end of the block, Mrs. or Mr. Gordie-occasionally both-was always there, patiently waiting.
Mr. Gordie leaned over the sofa to see if I was doing what his wife had told me. Beneath me, the LEGO wall lay demolished, its bricks broken and scattered into chunks just small enough to be crammed back into the shoebox that he and his wife kept in the coat closet beside the front door. The pocket-size dinosaurs remained tame. From the corner of my eye, I watched Mr. Gordie linger to catch my attention. A smile dashed across his face. He lay back into the sofa and returned to the television's late-afternoon rerun.
"You want the rest of your soda?" he called from the sofa, his face out of view from the floor. His hand appeared over the armrest, dangling a half-empty glass bottle of RC Cola by its lip with his fingertips. I reached, but he plucked it from my grasp. I scrambled for the drink again and he laughed. With my third effort, he surrendered the bottle. "Don't spill that thing or we'll both have hell to pay. I can promise you that," he cautioned, leaning over the edge and shaking his head. After securing the bottle with both hands, I pressed its base into the dusty carpet between the sofa and me.
Our apartment in Lincoln Park was just north of downtown Chicago, a few train stops from the Loop, where my grandmother worked as a secretary at Sinclair Oil. She did her best to get off work no later than five in the evening, sometimes skipping lunch to beat the clock. During the summer, she might do a little shopping on the way home, taking advantage of the late sunlight. But the winter sun rested early, and she disliked being out alone at night. With the evening and the chill, she rushed home. Mrs. Gordie teased her regularly about it. "My goodness, Katherine, try living a little, for God's sake. Who stuffed you with such an old, anxious soul? What are you, thirty-seven, maybe thirty-eight?"
My grandmother nodded back, inevitably declining to answer Mrs. Gordie's bigger question and sticking to the smaller. "I'm forty-three."
By the late sixties, when my grandmother arrived with me in tow, the grandeur of the Lincoln Park neighborhood was in steep decline. The redbrick row houses where we and the Gordies lived had been divided and redivided, stretching into rows of tenements where a half dozen families might squeeze into the space that only one family had occupied in better years. The kindergarten and elementary school where my grandmother enrolled me eventually fed their charges to Waller High, which Chicago's Board of Education later renamed Lincoln Park High in a vain effort to shake loose the school's reputation for violence.
Mr. Gordie's afternoon Western was exploding into a final round of gunfire, and my grandmother's faint knock was nearly lost in the volley. But expecting it, I dashed to the front door and found my grandmother on the porch, a small bag of groceries under one arm and her bulky purse hanging at her side. Bundled for the cold, she wore a heavy overcoat that she had bought from a woman at church, dark gloves, and a small yellow knit hat over a head of thick gray and black hair. She was a young-looking woman with strong, dark eyes, though lines creased her forehead, especially when she scowled. She wore lipstick, but reserved it exclusively for work. With me at her side, she was often confused for my mother. But each time-regardless of the place, person, or circumstance-I jumped to correct the error. "She's not my mom," I lectured ignorant strangers. "She's my grandmother." Then I pointed at her to confirm what seemed to me an apparent fact. "She's old."
Still waiting on the porch in the cold night air, my grandmother peered into the Gordies' apartment, then adjusted her grocery bag. "Grandma's sorry she's late."
Lying on the sofa, Mr. Gordie lifted his hand in recognition. "Hello, Miss Katherine," he yelled across the room before slumping back to the television.
"Did you get enough TV?" she asked me.
I smiled and without a word retrieved my coat and backpack from the living-room floor. Mrs. Gordie reappeared from the kitchen, and my grandmother apologized again.
"Don't you want to come in, Katherine?" Mrs. Gordie asked, folding her arms from the open door's chill.
"Oh, he won't take long with his coat." My grandmother threw me a glance to hurry up. "We really have to get home. Maybe tomorrow night."
Outside, the lingering clouds of an evening flurry warmed the air a little. Locked in ice and buried up to their bumpers, neighbors' cars rested like great metal fossils, waiting for discovery with the first slush of spring. Clutching my hand, my grandmother steadied her footing down the stairs of the Gordies' frozen porch, onto the softly packed sidewalk. We reached the first of two ridges of crusted snow mounded over the curbs of the neighborhood's streets. She lifted my arm to help me scale it. Over the ice crest, I twisted my hand from her grasp, darted into the middle of the street, looked back, and teased her with a smile.
She glanced to the left, then to the right, down the long, white canal. Without a moving car or person in sight, she raised her eyebrows and grinned, nodding her head to accept the challenge. She dropped her purse in the grocery bag, then with her free arm, slowly reached to her side for a fistful of snow. I hastily fell to my knees, began packing together my own ball. She lobbed one, deliberately missing me by inches. Still at the curb, she waited, unarmed and laughing. I fired back, but the toss was weak, dropping closer to me than to her. She bent to gather a second round. My fate sealed, I scrambled across the second embankment of ice, onto the sidewalk, to the row house where we lived. Crouched behind the stairs, my hands stinging from the cold, I listened for the coming onslaught. I peeked over the railing. My exhausted grandmother appeared in front of me, one hand clutching her grocery bag and the other holding the backpack that I had left in the street. Not a snowball was in sight.
"Come on, sweetheart," she sighed. "It's time to get inside."
Our boots crusted with snow, we trudged up the four flights of stairs, passed our neighbors' well-secured doors, and finally reached our own. Balancing the groceries on a lifted knee, she fumbled inside the grocery sack for her purse and keys, unlocked the first and second dead bolts, then the doorknob that she complained was useless anyway. We stomped our feet just outside the opened door, leaving a jumble of snow prints on the hallway's threadbare carpet.
My grandmother grinned down at me. "Good enough to scare away the prowlers?" I nodded in agreement. She reached inside, flipped the wall switch, and led the way.
The two of us crowded into the apartment's small foyer. My grandmother quickly shut the door, flipped the dead bolts back into place, then twisted the button on the knob sideways and softly ran her fingertips across it, making certain that she had gotten it right. She latched the chain, took a final look at the secured barrier, and when assured that everything was as it needed to be, turned toward the apartment's cold, unlit rooms. She stepped forward and I scooted behind. She slipped off my backpack, which I grabbed with both hands. I waited at the threshold of my darkened room and watched as she passed through the apartment leaving a chain of light behind her. Then, with every other room ablaze, I turned to mine.
I plunked my backpack onto my bedroom dresser, disturbing the clutter of books that my grandmother bought from catalogs and that arrived at the beginning of every month addressed to me. As always, she had made the twin bed that morning, and now in the evening shadow, the tucked bedcover rested smooth as ink. I flopped down, my legs hanging at the side, my ears and nose still cold from the trek across the street. Tired, my mind emptied slowly into the raven night of the room's deepening corners.
Down the hallway, my grandmother dropped the grocery bag on the kitchen table, walked back across the wooden floor to the living room, and was now struggling with the radiator knob.
"Andy, after supper, do you want me to read some of your Bible to you for Sunday school?" she hollered through the wall. "We can practice learning that story your teacher assigned you in class." The radiator sputtered with steam. She turned back for the kitchen. "Is that all right with you, Andy?" Her footsteps halted in the hallway as she strained to tug off her wet boots. "Did you hear me? I asked if-"
"Yeah," I hollered just to give her something. Her lightened steps drifted back toward the kitchen. I slid off my bed, wandered to the cold of the bay window that, even with my eyes adjusted to the dark, barely lit the room. I gazed down at the clean view of the street where, across and several houses down, a gray rectangle of light marked the apartment where Mrs. Gordie, finished with the cooking, must have sat down for dinner with her husband in front of the television.
"Andy, could you come in here and give Grandma a hand?" My grandmother's voice echoed from the kitchen into my room. I glanced at the door, then up at the old walls that framed it. Long, bent cracks spread down the chipping plaster. I thought of the legs of a stalking arachnid dangling around the sides of the room, its hairy abdomen having descended from a silky wisp overhead.
"Andy!" she cried again.
I sprang to the hallway and the kitchen. The table was set for two.
"Are you hungry, honey? Grandma got spaghetti for dinner." She stirred a battered aluminum pot on the stove. "Why don't you put the empty cans in that grocery sack and throw 'em away for me?" She lifted the sauce-covered spoon to point at the containers on the counter next to her, then to the paper bag upright in the middle of the room. I looked at the kitchen door leading to the balcony, then back at her. She rolled her eyes, exhaling loudly. "Sweetheart, it's just outside. I'm really too tired for this tonight." She returned to her stirring. "Come on, let's be a good boy, and help Grandma out."
I dropped the cans loudly into the bag and dragged it across the floor. Reaching the door, I pushed it open, inviting in the cold and stepping into the night. Across the wooden balcony, the kitchen light beamed across several patches of rough ice that had frozen from the winter's melted snow.
"Don't forget to close the door, sweetheart," my grandmother yelled from the stove. "Remember how I told you heat's expensive?"