It was early evening when I fell out of context and into the room where my mother died. My wife was kissing our daughter good night. It was me in the doorway watching, Corinne over the bed, and when she pulled the same quilt my mother made for me to our little girl's face, Corinne said Remember, Honey; Mom loves.
I thought she was talking to me.
And there I was back to that last time, with mother lying there in her own mother's bed. It was so big I thought she'd been swallowed. She said there never really was a good time, there would always be something to put before this. Her voice was passive, sand-cracked, and gray light dusted the room. I swore I'd never forget.
The image has played continually on a silent reel-to-reel behind my eyes: her old yellow head decaying on an old yellow pillow, her crepe-paper lids shut tight over the simple pain of breathing. She had not even reached middle age yet she seemed so old to me then. Every time she opened her mouth my eyes were drawn toward the dried spit that lined her lips like glue.
She still had hope then; isn't that what she said? I brushed away cobwebs clinging behind her nightstand; I swore I'd never forget. She said something, I remember, about hope: how it frittered away in fugitive pieces, disappeared into the cracks like so many random ants—death brought out the poet in her.
They told me that after she died her body sucked in a great swash of air and kicked its legs out. Even the nurses jumped. Easy to picture this. I wasn't there but I know what she looked like—her mouth turned to a mischievous grin while everyone else in the room slowly let the tension ease from their lungs. I wasn't there but I can describe it: the entire room, what the doctor wore, and the TV like a security camera in the corner. But her last words to me are lost.
A moment comes when I'm certain I recall word-for-word what somebody has said to me—at a party, between friends, a confidence over bourbon. Yet, often my friends react with amazement when I bring up an exchange I thought we'd shared; they know nothing of it. Then I'm forced to wonder: is it me or them? Have I imagined all this or have they simply forgotten?
The memory of my mother is odd. There is me standing over her, stroking her smoke-stained bangs, my fifteen-year-old self chiding me to remember what she is saying. At the same time—or at the time of now—the moment is inscrutable. We had both come to recognize a denouement, an end. But now that I'm almost at the age when she died (thirty-eight), what image stands out most clearly? A moment where I was not present: the instant she died, surrounded by strangers.
Mother was my first death; the first person I'd never see again, and I swore I'd never forget the weight of those moments beside her bed. But over time, that weight began to lighten and crumble; it cracked beneath the stress of coping with a first job after graduation, the joy discovered in first love, learning my father's second wife—and then it was another city, a different job, more people in and out of my life until forgetting was easy. Time passes with such speed that memory curls away in the jet stream.
With Heather tucked in, Corinne and I fixed a late dinner for ourselves before going out. We're into stir-fried vegetables these days because it's quick and kind of gourmet. I diced the peppers and onions and we waited for the new babysitter to arrive. Our boxer watched me, his floppy jowls and flat stare suggesting impatience with my failure to push food off the cutting table; I said, It's only vegetables, Zico, you'd hate them. Then I stopped to wrestle with him anyway on the kitchen floor, and we played the game my daughter calls Escape (her favorite new word, repeated endlessly in this house), where I hold his jaws shut and he tried to break free. Soon I'm flat on my back with the dog on top. A look from Corinne informed me that we were getting too loud, so I let the dog gnaw on my hand. Corinne turned around and opened the refrigerator door, suddenly silhouetted by the light inside, and I was brought into another kitchen in the middle of summer over thirty years ago.
Mother had dressed me in my favorite Oshkosh overalls before she and my father left to play golf at the country club. Our next-door neighbor, the enormous Mrs. Byatt, had been left to watch over me. She instructed me to stay outside so she could watch the soaps in peace. I walked around barefoot and caught black caterpillars that crossed our street in droves. I held them beneath an eyeglass until they flamed. The day had become so humid, and the concrete so hot, I was soon convinced that an egg could fry on that sidewalk.
It would have to be done in secret since eggs weren't available for such things. To avoid Mrs. Byatt I had to sneak into the kitchen, quietly open the refrigerator, and climb to the eggs by holding the cold grated Shelves—pulling a chair across the linoleum floor would have called her from the TV. Once I felt the egg in my hand I stealthily dropped down and eased the door shut, as silent as any master thief.
The refrigerated egg felt thoroughly solid; the heavy smooth curve of it in my palm reminded me of creekstones. It felt as precious as some obscure jewel, with a strange weight that pulled from the center, rolling dry in my fist as I shook it, listening for some muffled sound inside. The TV continued its distant murmur, and I began the slow, deliberate steps back to the safety of the outdoors.
But suddenly Mrs. Byatt appeared in the front hallway and snatched the egg away. She ordered me out the front door. I disobeyed, and numbly followed instead as she returned to the refrigerator, the egg held out like something newly discovered and so important that the appliance must see. When the door opened, her back turned to shadow and her head disappeared inside; I knew she was counting eggs. I said I was sorry for trying to deceive her.
Quite all right, she replied. With that I assumed I was free to leave. But then the way she turned to look at me, head tilted and eyes invisible beneath the reflection off of her glasses, left me unsure. She walked over and knelt in front of me so that we were almost eye-to-eye.
I understand wanting what you can't have, she said. Mrs. Byatt had no children of her own; my parents spoke often of it, saying what a sad situation it made. She sat back on her heels with her palms on her fleshy thighs. Her skin was sticky and I could smell the salt on it. I wanted to go back outside; I wondered when my parents would come home. Abruptly, she embraced me.
You'll never realize how I wanted one of my own, she sobbed, her short, weepy breaths rattling my ear. Her tears ran onto my naked shoulder. I wanted to say it was okay but my mouth had gone dry, and again I wondered when my parents were coming.
Then Mrs. Byatt fell silent. The two of us remained in our embrace on the kitchen floor. It could have been hours. And there the memory gets slippery: Mrs. Byatt unhooks the gold-painted button over my right shoulder and my overalls fall around my ankles. I'm not wearing underpants so I'm bare, with my feet bound by my clothes. Mrs. Byatt scoots her body back and leans her head forward, and there's the wetness of her face and mouth on my stomach. I close my eyes, then open them again and stare out the window above the kitchen sink. Outside, in the wind, the silver maple is shaking, and the leaves wave.
Is this memory or fear? I'm not sure. It's captured in shadow and fog, between the real and the imagined, like the memory of my mother dying. I don't believe in repressed memory. It's possible that what I've heard could distort what I've seen. This memory, this image, recurs often; it follows a loop my mind takes, and never have I been absolutely certain of its truth.
Still, lying there on my own kitchen floor, my hand caught in the dog's mouth, the image tightened my chest and dried my throat. I pictured my little girl sound asleep upstairs beneath the quilt my mother made.
Sainlar, Irwin Sainlar—that's how the baby sitter introduced himself when I opened the door. It surprised me that he was a man. He'd never worked for us, but was recommended by some acquaintance of Corinne's. Her hand slid up my back to my neck—signalling me to relax—and we showed him about the house. My guard faltered somewhat. But I'm old-fashioned, and when we let him peek into Heather's room it felt like a betrayal somehow. It would have been easier to leave if we had simply instructed him to watch the house, and not even hinted at our daughter asleep upstairs. But we left anyway, to roam the State Fair. Sainlar appeared content to have found the remote control to the TV.
Our State Fair has never changed and each time it is just as I remember it. Corinne and I relished the terrible food and rickety carnival rides, and readily bought into the more bizarre side shows. They had the Snake Woman, bewitched after her father's seduction, curiously presented in dark light. Another tent had nothing but photographs from deep Africa, mostly of tribal ceremonies and odd ritual body piercings which have since lost their shock and become fashionable over here. The pictures were all in black and white, yellowed and creased with age. Corinne wondered how many times they had been packed up and taken out to show again.
It wasn't long before I made a beeline for the Arctic Blast, the oldest of all the carnival rides. There's not much to it—the rollercoaster travels the same circle faster and faster for about a minute. Still, it's always been my favorite and I've ridden it nearly every year since I was seven.
But Corinne asked to pass on this one. Oh come on, I complained, you're not going to make me ride in the car alone, are you?
They won't let you ride alone, you'll get to sit beside some kid.
I gave her the same look our dog gives when he's indignant.
Corinne continued to shake her head. She said her stomach hurt from all the garbage we'd eaten and whipping in a circle wasn't going to help. I told her she still had to wait in line with me.
As I placed my hand over the steel railing, a current surged up my arm as if I'd grasped electric fence wire. Something wasn't grounded. I put my arm around Corinne to surprise her, but she reached across me me and her hair tickled my nose, and suddenly I wasn't in line for the ride anymore but standing with Corinne in her old apartment five years ago. She has her arms around me and she whispers that this night is very important; it's the moment she tells me we're going to have a child and that I must never forget what that means to us.
I have my nose down in that delicate space that all women have, where the collarbone opens a small well between itself and the neck. My eyes are closed and I love the way she smells, nothing very fragrant, just clean. My arms are inside her blouse, my hands press the warm, soft curve of her back, and I'm wondering how this body—which always seemed so impossibly delicate to me—is going to survive the trauma of childbirth. A moment mixed with concern and uninhibited lightness, a moment where I felt everything from here on will be new and fresh, an unopened gift from the world to us.
As soon as Corinne jumped back from the steel rail, the memory vanished. I was back in line and thinking of our daughter's delicate body, vaguely concerned over how Sainlar would handle her is she awoke. But these thoughts scattered as Corinne started laughing hysterically, saying Don't you dare get on that ride! She was certain it wasn't safe and even when I said that none of the State Fair rides were, that was the adventure of it, she refused to allow me on.
She brushed past and approached the conductor, leaving me with that moment in her apartment five years before. That moment with my nose pressed between her shoulder and neck was so distinct . . . but like the end with my mother, I couldn't recall what we did to celebrate that night, whether we went out or made love or just watched TV. I remembered how she smelled and nothing else!
The conductor was shaking his head while Corinne spoke, her hands gesticulating wildly in the air, and his face fell into a weary expression once he rose from his chair and shut down the ride. He announced that the problem could be fixed quickly, that it would only take a short while, but Corinne had already pulled me from the line and we were walking. And then there was the image of Sainlar running through my head and I asked her again who had recommended him to us, how reliable were they.
She asked me what was wrong. I told her I was mad I didn't get to ride the Arctic Blast.
It was hot and, being the State Fair, there was no place to go and cool off. The haunted houses were steamy from all of the sweating bodies pouring through, and the House of Mirrors was like a sauna after reflecting sunrays all day within itself. The convention center was just as hot, and then you had the animal stench there, too. So we decided to find a bench and just sit.
Corinne said she was feeling nauseated now. The sky was clear and filled with stars, despite the glare of the Midway. She said she felt a little faint, but I could tell she wanted to talk anyway. She started telling me about a time she went to the State Fair as a girl, just old enough to be embarrassed over being there with her parents. She said it was hot like tonight, and after wandering around the House of Mirrors she and her mother both fainted on the stairs leading out. It made her father so angry he never took her to the Fair again.
The memory didn't sadden her; she described the experience the way she would an unpleasant high school dance, with a faint smile and a chuckle. We remained silent for a few minutes, smiling in our nostalgia. Then Corinne announced it was high time to go home.
But what about the Arctic Blast? I protested, and she wasn't too hard to convince. She was feeling better, knowing we were going to go home soon.
My watch indicated that we didn't have much time before the Midway closed and so we jogged despite the heat and the crowd streaming out toward the exit. When we found the ride it had spawned another line—at least it was working again. The first thing Corinne did was touch the steel rail.
Absently, unconcerned, I asked how she felt about Sainlar. She flicked her hand open as if tossing something meaningless away.
Oh, he's kind of odd but S— swears by him, she said. She didn't look at me as she said this, which indicated it was on her mind but she didn't want me to know. Why? she asked. Do you think we should be worried? She looked out toward the parking lot, bringing her thumbnail to her mouth.
Nah, I reassured her. I reminded her I'd be right out; the ride lasted only a minute at most.
The conductor called last ride as I skipped up the steel steps to the wooden-planked walkway. Shoes clattered like stone against the old wood and the entire structure swayed with the weight of us. The track was framed by painted billboards: people racing toboggans and skis, hurling snowballs on the slopes of an Alpine mountain. The figures were washed out and chipped and in need of attention.
I found an empty car and sat down, the safety bar clanging to a halt in my lap. Two distinct figures near the base of the mountain caught my eye. An old man, looking remarkably like Scrooge before his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past (down to the top hat, striped scarf, and bony nose), bowed to a very young, blonde-haired girl. She wore a Santa's helper cap and carried her ice skates tossed over one shoulder. In her face I couldn't help but see a shade of my daughter Heather, with her wide, trusting gray eyes and full cheekbones. Scrooge's palms rested against his bandy thighs.
The ride kicked in, my head snapped back. We started off slowly, timed by the rhythmic rattle of heavy chains as the conductor's voice fuzzed through the loudspeaker to order our hands inside the cars. Prepare for the Arctic Blast! he announced. I could almost touch the gliding billboard figures; past the conductor I could see Corinne wave. The glare from the bulb lights (a third of which were burned out or missing) was yellow and the music sounded goofily Bavarian.
We picked up speed. From beneath the tracks a choked complaint of heavy machinery gasped, combined with the couple's laugh behind me. The old man and young girl passed again and I noticed that much of his face has been chipped away, exposing the naked wood underneath. Then Corinne flew by, and the context blurred (along with me), and I found myself again in that space where the moment is no longer true, no longer certain, when what seemed lost in the past has now come present and all bearing are unclear.
The next time 'round there is only an instant to glance at the billboard and my two figures appear to have moved: the man's hand lifts out to the girl in invitation to come along with him somewhere in the woods. In a voice insanely similar to Sainlar's, I can hear him describe a place he knows, farther back and through the trees, where a nice big pond lies frozen for her to skate on, alone and undisturbed for as long as she wishes.
I want to share something with you, Mrs. Byatt had said to me. her face wore streaks from her eyes to her chin, but her mouth had limped into a curious smile. You're such a wonderful boy.
My fists clench, white-knuckled, around the safety bar—and a panic clues me to the certainty that I shouldn't have gotten on here, I should have gone home the moment Corinne shared some concern and what kind of parent was I? The ride starts to shake. I tell myself it's not true, I'm getting away from myself, inventing things. Another grounded cry from tired steel and Corinne blurs past, mixing again with the two billboard Figures—Corinne, Sainlar and our daughter. I want to leave; the ride rollicks and shudders and the noise sounds like the underside of a runaway train, near the axles.
My fingernails dig small cuts into my palms as the images come, all that I don't want to remember, or know: my mother's yellow head on an old yellow pillow and how much I hated her and those last meaningless words; Mrs. Byatt on her knees in the kitchen; Sainlar opening the door to my daughter's room. He's a black paper cutout, silhouetted by the hall light. he gently pushes her cotton night dress up; she has no idea what to say or do; she pretends she's still asleep. I want to yell: Escape, Heather! Escape!
The ride has taken long enough. My car fights against the others, slamming the rails; it skids against the old billboard erasing sleds, children, painted ice. There is the sound of aged iron breaking, a noise difficult to describe as anything less than a scream. A deep rumble and shower of splinters, and I pull away from the tracks, crack through the railing and lift above everybody watching, their faces stilled by shock and awe.
The car turns in the air. For a moment I see Corinne duck beneath her purse, eyes shut and dark hair flying as the Blast sails over her head and over the House of Mirrors, past the freak shows and water rides, with a course set for Home.