Tagged: family

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.

Just a Fancy Word for Drinking Water

They gave him oral rehydration therapy, Frank says, but he threw it up.

Shit, Julia whispers, and puts her forehead in her hand.

They say it might still work, Frank says.

That doesn’t make any fucking sense, Frank. How the fuck is he supposed to get the water in his system if he threw it up. If you’re in a goddamn boat and the boat starts to sink, and you bail all the water out of the boat, the boat doesn’t sink anymore. How the fuck is he going to get rehydrated if he’s lost all his goddamn water? She pinches a fingerful of yellow hair in front of her nose and pulls it down until she involuntarily-voluntarily yelps.

Julia, Frank says. Julia, calm down. He sits next to her. Rows of empty chairs line both sides of the hallway, as if the hospital were expecting visitors four to a room, as if (Frank thinks) all the open doors all might suddenly close and the hallway might start to move, a great Hadean subway to nowhere. He touches her shoulder and she recoils from his fingers like a snail.

I don’t want to fucking calm down.

There’s a difference.

What’s the fucking difference?

The difference is in this case we want the water to stay in the boat.

Fuck you, Frank, Julia says acridly, you’re murdering my father.

Neither one of them talks for a little while. Julia knows she is being irrational but she doesn’t fucking care. Frank knows she knows, and doesn’t know the right thing to say. So he waits. The hallway is quiet. It is so quiet that Frank starts to wonder if anything is actually going on in the room, if the doctors are doing anything at all, or if perhaps Steve is already dead, maybe he has been this whole time and nobody remembered to tell the two of them, out here in the hall. Maybe the subway has left. Maybe the room has already been cleared. Maybe someone else’s father-in-law is already dying in there.

I mean, he finally hazards, sometimes the boat still sinks.

What?

You know, you try and bail out all the water and you don’t… look, I’m just trying to go with your metaphor, I mean, your analogy, I’m trying to say that it might still work.

The analogy?

The oral rehydration therapy.

Oh. Julia takes a deep breath through her nose, holds it, exhales through her mouth. I’m sorry I snapped at you, she says.

It’s OK.

I’m just… She holds both hands in front of her face, palms facing each other like she is clutching an imaginary basketball, and vibrates them.

I know.

It wasn’t a very good analogy.

It was fine.

They wait. What else can they do?

Bookended by Bites

I turn the key. It still turns. I remember the door of Cochran Place, the way I watched my mother open it, and I have the familiar and pleasant feeling that even though I have lived elsewhere, even though they have redone the porch and the kitchen and the washing machine, even though they threaten to get rid of the wallpaper in the dining room (and never do, yielding, I have to assume, to my superior powers of persuasion and interior design), even though the bedroom pillows are worn out, even though the driveway is no longer made of gravel– even still, the key still turns.

I lay my skis against the foyer wall and go to seek my dog. I do not have to seek far. He is asleep, on the couch, prone, in the usual spot. Fred is old, older than dirt, we say, older than the hills, older than 9/11, older, in point of fact, than the porch or the kitchen or the washing machine. He has been so long a part of my life, a part of my family, a part of my home. But he, too, is changing, aging, deteriorating. Coming home only once every few months, before that not coming home for a year, I have watched him age in spurts, I have sampled his progress in low resolution to find it, of course, aperiodic, asymmetric; teleological.

The dog’s legs don’t work; what had been a slight limp has become the threadbare vestige of control over the rear two legs, splaying out at his sides when he sits, the left further forward than the right. On hardwood floors they do not grip, the pressure between pad and ply is not enough to keep the angles straight, and he slides, quasi-skating backwards, a miracle on ice, the sad but inevitable march indoors. He takes glucosamine daily. While he does not seem to be in pain, he sometimes seems embarrassed, and we are careful to encourage him, never to make fun of him, to treat him as family, to give him his dignity.

He opens his eyes. The dog is deaf, now, almost stone deaf. Like Zayda, his hearing loss is highly selective, but it is still quite real. The cataracts cascading over his lenses are a little more opaque each time. Still, I think he recognizes me. I scratch his ear and lean in to Eskimo-kiss his muzzle.

It happens very fast.

I am cursing with hellfire and thunder in my voice, rumbling up from my gut, from a wellspring of baritone I was unaware I had, “BAD FUCKING DOG,” I do not even remember the Christians next door with their impressionable baby, I am sure they are displeased with my display of irreverence. Blood literally drips from my beard, I catch it in my hand as I use the other hand to grab the dog by his scruff and shake him. “SEE WHAT YOU FUCKING DID,” I growl in a voice that is scarcely half human, and I can see the recognition now, the fear, the realization of what he has done. I order him off the couch and into a corner. He slinks there like a cat, trying to make himself invisible, as I go to inspect the damage. There is a cut just below my lower lip, on skin uncovered by beard, which is nearly invisible when my jaw is relaxed, but widens into nearly an 8-gauge piercing when I stretch my lip, as if to chew with a closed mouth, or to make a silly face. I soak a gauze pad with my blood, discard it, use another. The flow is already lessening, but certainly not stopping.

I call my mom. “We’re almost home,” she says, “are you home?”

“The fucking dog bit me in the fucking face,” I tell her.

“He what?!

They arrive home ten minutes later or so. I spend the entire interim glaring furiously at Fred. He tries to make himself small, pill-like, and I occasionally tell him what a bad dog he is, causing him to curl up even tighter. My parents arrive and my mom agrees that I do indeed need stitches, and gauze still pressed to my mouth we head to Prompt Care.

In the waiting room, my mom says, truthfully, “We’ll have to forgive him– he doesn’t have that much time left.”

“It’s true,” I agree.

“Do you remember,” she asks, even though she knows I do, “when he bit you in the face last time? You were ten and now you’re 23… his life has sort of been bookended by biting you.”

“Yep,” I mumble. I don’t want to move my lower jaw much. When the nurse asks me, later, how much pain I am in, I tell her it is a four out of ten. It is probably only a three, but I know not to underestimate at Prompt Care.

“We brought in the dog psychologist then, do you remember? She told us to get rid of the rawhide and to make you and Molly be the ones to feed and walk him… so he would learn dependence. I wonder what happened this time. I guess he just didn’t recognize you. You’ve been two months… and you startled him.”

“I look like an animal,” I say, smiling and then stopping, conscious of the blood in my beard and that it is mine.

“All he saw was fur,” Mom says. “He feels so bad. Did you see him sitting on his bed? He’s so embarrassed.”

“I know,” I say, “I yelled at him pretty fucking good. I think I offended the neighbors.”

“They’ll deal.” She pauses. “We only had him for a month then, and we might not have him for another month…”

The nurse comes and gives me a tetanus shot, but there is a delay before the stitches. “He’s getting old,” I tell Mom. “He’s been going blind, deaf, arthritic, he’s been doing those for a couple years now… but now he’s really getting… old.” She nods. “I mean… I think his mind is going.” She nods more slowly. Neither of us really wants to pursue the topic so instead we play Words with Friends.

Eventually I get my stitches and we make our way back to the car. I cannot talk due to the anesthetic; I limit myself to mm-hm’s and hm-mm’s. On Concord we see Dad walking the old man. I roll down the window. “Who’s that vicious animal?” Mom calls out. “I’m not talking to him,” Dad says, “or touching him. He needs to pee so he doesn’t pee in the house but this is not a fun walk.”

I make eye contact with the dog. I do not know if he remembers what he has done, but he looks at me in the eyes. Benefitting him with doubt, I ascribe to him my own intelligence and think: Will they ever love me again? Will I die shunned? What have I done? Wordlessly, I call him to the window, and deliberately, slowly, I lower my hand. He looks at it for a moment and then, deliberately, slowly licks my fingers. I smile and scratch his ears. “He’s sorry,” Mom remarks. Mm-hm, I hum.