The Errand

The first Saturday of every month, Madison has to go with her mother to Coney Island. They go no matter the weather. On sunny summer days they go to the beach and stay for a few hours, but even when it snows they ride the N from their home in Astoria, nearly from one end of the line to the other. It takes almost an hour and a half. “In Rhode Island,” Madison’s mother has told her, “you can cross an entire state in an hour and half.” Madison’s mother always brings a book on the train. Today the book is a small, thin paperback, with a solid red cover and no pictures. Madison can’t read yet, and on some Saturdays her mother brings a picture book to read to her, but on others– like today– she doesn’t. “Sorry, Madison,” she says, “I need to read this for work. I guess you just have to use your imagination.”

Madison is good at imagining, but she prefers just to look out the window of the train. Even underground, she is amazed at how fast the lights fly by her. The bridge is her favorite part, of course, especially if there is traffic and she can watch the stopped cars, the pictures on the sides of trucks, the things that change every time. She is only four years old, but she is already bored with the Manhattan skyline. She has seen it the first Saturday of every month, with one exception, as long as she can remember; and even if it changes sometimes with a new building, the novelty wears off. Once the train enters the open cut south of 59th Street in Sunset Park, she likes looking at the tracks pass her by in the light, she likes looking at the freight trains in the trench below them. She likes to pretend she is sitting still and the city is the one moving, all the buildings getting up and running so that Coney Island can get to them.

Madison unenthusiastically but ungrudgingly accepts that she has to go on these monthly errands. She is more than a little confused about the purpose of the errand, but has learned not to question it. One time she asked her mother why they had to go every month. “Sweetie, you know why,” her mother had said, “we have to visit Matt.” Madison asked if she really had to come to visit Matt. Her mother had insisted: she couldn’t leave Madison at home alone all day, and it was, as they both knew, a long trip.

Madison had asked why they didn’t go every couple of months, instead of every single one. But her mother wouldn’t dream of it, wouldn’t entertain the possibility. At first Madison had thought this was unfair. But then, one Monday night at the end of October, there was a big storm, and the subway was closed all week. Madison’s mother didn’t go to work, and the two of them stayed home; her mother read to her, they played games together, and to top it all off Wednesday was Halloween, Madison’s favorite holiday. It was the best week of Madison’s life. On Friday night, Madison’s mother said to her at dinner, “The subway is still closed. I guess we won’t be visiting Matt tomorrow.” Madison said it was OK, she didn’t mind, she was having fun. Couldn’t they stay home and watch a movie or something instead?

Her mother didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then she said, “Finish your dinner, sweetie, I have to go to the bathroom.” She got up and walked upstairs. Madison kept eating; she finished her macaroni and her mother still wasn’t back. All of a sudden she could hear a terrible sound: her mother was crying, alone. Madison panicked. What could she do? This had never happened before, not at home. She was used to seeing her mother cry in Coney Island, not every month, only from time to time, but it didn’t seem real there. It was just part of the routine, like when people cry in movies. Madison never understood why her mother cried in Coney Island, but in all her four years had never thought to ask. But this was at home. How could her mother be so sad? Wasn’t she having fun too? Finally the sound stopped, her mother came back to the table, her face wet with water from the sink. “Sorry, baby,” she said, “I guess I really had to go to the bathroom.” Madison offered to clear the table and her mother said she could do that. After dinner they watched The Wizard of Oz.

The next week they were able to get to Coney Island, and after that they resumed their usual schedule. Since then, Madison hasn’t complained about going to visit Matt. If her mother has to cry once a month, she would rather it stay there, in Brooklyn, where she can pretend it is all part of some meaningless ritual, where she can pretend it doesn’t matter.

That was more than three months ago. It’s snowing, now, as the train pulls into Stillwell Avenue. Madison’s mother puts the little red book in her purse and stands up, taking Madison’s hand as they step across the gap. They are bundled up, Madison in her red scarf, blue knitted hat and black gloves. She has refused her mother’s request that she wear snowpants. Madison asks to lead the way. Her boots are slightly too big for her, but she is still able to run down Mermaid Avenue, which she has always thought is a very pretty name for a street. Four, five, six blocks, until she reaches their destination: an old bicycle, stripped of seat, pedals and chain, locked to a pole, in the same place it has always been. It is covered two inches deep with fresh white snow. Madison brushes some of it off with her gloves. The paint underneath is the same color as the snow. She picks some of the snow up to taste it. It is cold and delicious.

She turns around; her mother is half a block behind her, in no particular hurry. Finally she gets there. She takes off her right glove, and as she does every month, kisses the palm of her hand and grips the handlebar of the bicycle. “Hi, Matt,” she says. “I’m here with Madison. It’s snowing.” Madison doesn’t get why her mother wants to tell the bike this; she may only be four, but she knows bikes can’t hear, and if it could hear it could probably also figure out that it was snowing. But she is used to her mother’s oddities. It really was a lot like a movie. “Allison and Jiayi just got married,” her mother tells the bicycle, speaking very slowly, “you remember them. You would have loved the wedding. It was at this beautiful church out in Flushing.”

While her mother is relating the last month’s events to Matt, Madison sits on the snowy sidewalk and lets her mind wander. Two blocks away she can see the beach, and in the quiet February air she thinks she can even hear the waves crashing. Yes, she definitely can. She wonders why the ocean doesn’t freeze in winter. She is lulled into a sort of meditation, listening to the water, and doesn’t realize how cold and wet her pants are until her mother tugs at her arm. “Ready to go, baby?” she says. Madison asks if they can go down to the beach. “Not today,” her mother tells her. “It’s too cold. Oh! Your pants are soaked! I told you to wear snowpants.”

The two of them slowly make their way back to the train. By the time they get home, they will have spent three hours on the train and waiting for the train, all for only fifteen minutes of talking to a bicycle named Matt. Madison’s legs are shivering as they stand waiting to cross the street, her knees knocking against each other exaggeratedly. “I’m sorry, Madison,” says her mother, “once we’re on the train you’ll warm right up.” A train is waiting for them at the terminal, and they get on, the only ones in their car. They sit across from each other. Although she is determined not to make her mother cry again, Madison feels unusually resentful that she has been dragged here yet again. She knows her friends’ mothers don’t do anything like this; why is hers so weird? Her mother takes out the little red book and begins reading. Madison watches her with newfound interest. She has, for so long, accepted their errand in Coney Island without the need to understand it; but something has changed. Her legs are still cold.

At Avenue U the train is delayed. The announcer says that they are being held by the train’s dispatcher, and thanks the passengers for their patience. There is still no one else in their car.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?” her mother says, looking up from the book.

“Why do you tell Matt all those things? I mean, why do we come all the way here, just so you can tell him what happened last month?”

Her mother looks at her curiously, head cocked to one side like a puppy. “Well,” she says, “he was very important to me. I suppose you could say I was in love with him.”

This was not what Madison was expecting to hear. “But Mommy,” she says, confused, “Matt is a bicycle.”

Her mother’s eyes widen and she raises her hand to her mouth. “Madison… sweetie…” The doors close, and the train begins moving. Her mother has an expression like she has just found out that everything she knows is wrong; her mouth moves but no words come out. All of a sudden Madison is terribly embarrassed and ashamed of herself. She is sure she has said something awful, something that will make her mother cry again, and although she isn’t sure, she thinks that this must be what being a grown-up is like. She realizes in an instant how fragile her mother must be, to think a bicycle is a person, and she is very scared. But above all, she feels sorry for her mother, and she feels she must protect her.

“I didn’t mean it, Mommy,” she says. Her mother still has the look of shock on her face. “Matt’s not a bicycle. Matt’s a person. I’m sorry I said he was a bicycle.” She gets up and crosses the car to sit next to her mother. “He’s not a bicycle.”

“Madison,” her mother says, “I didn’t… I didn’t know you didn’t know.” Madison doesn’t know what this means. She leans her head against her mother’s side. “I know the thing we visit in Coney Island is a bicycle.” Madison is relieved that her mother is not crazy after all. “I shouldn’t have— I mean, of course you don’t… listen, sweetie, can we— can we talk about this at home?”

“You have to read your book for work,” Madison says.

Her mother smiles. “Yes, I do.” She blinks and there is a single tear in her eye. “Yes, I do.” They sit the rest of the ride in silence. Her mother combs her fingers through Madison’s hair. Madison knows there is something her mother isn’t saying, but that sense of dangerous fragility is still so fresh in her mind that she is content to wait, to learn about it later. At some point she closes her eyes and the next thing she knows her mother is waking her up, telling her that theirs is the next stop. Madison is sad she missed going over the bridge. But, she supposes, she will see it next month.

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