The Serpent's Tooth
brother and I share a malaise. We call it Connecticut Melancholia. There are
specific sounds that we sometimes imitate over the telephone to each other when
we want to evoke it: Katydids, for instance. Any New Englander will know what
I'm talking about here. The katydids start up in late summer, in the evening.
At first you just hear a stray one here and there. It always seems too early.
It's only August, goddamnit! Within a week or so, the night fairly vibrates
with their raspy three-syllable one-note song, which they make with their hind
legs. You might even find a katydid once in a while. They're astonishing bugs,
big and lusciously, delicately green with intricate veined transparent wings.
The old timers say the advent of the katydids means six weeks until the first
frost. It awakens in me a primal sadness: Summer's dying. Here comes fall, then
winter. Back-to-school, back-to-school, back-to-school, say the katydids. And
that first frost shuts the katydids up decisively. Overnight, they're silenced.
When my brother and I really want to lay the Connecticut Melancholia on thick for one another, we also imitate church bells, (Link) the cawing of crows and the incomparably desolate (to us) sound of tires on the wet road going by my mother's house.
We're both afflicted. I had a mild case of it long before Mike's death. It was always stronger for my brother. We each left Connecticut early, before either of us was twenty years old. For him, the antidote was the big sky and vastness of the Colorado Rockies. For me, it was also Colorado for a while and then California. But I used to enjoy long visits in the golden days when Mike was there. We had good times. I'd stay for a while, then, satisfied, head back out west. Even my brother liked an occasional visit.
In the years since Mike's death the melancholia grew so that it was almost unbearable for us to be in Connecticut at all, and the house made us so sad we could hardly stand to walk through the door. And of course, it was after Mike's death that my mother wanted us there the most. When she asked when we were coming to visit, there was always a little ragged edge to the question, a plea that she couldn't suppress. If we had to go, spring was by far the least doleful time of year. Next was summer, as long as there was no risk of late-August katydids. Fall? Beautiful, but dangerous. Late fall, when the leaves are mostly brown and about to forsake the trees entirely and that chill foreboding is in the air? Uh-uh. Winter? Naked trees against gray skies? Stone walls in the snowy woods like tombstones? Forget it.
When Tommy or I visited her in Connecticut after Mike's death, we could never stay as long as she wanted us to. A couple of weeks was the most I could manage; even that was too long for my brother. That old melancholia would set its teeth in us no matter what the season and we'd get antsy and anxious to go. And she'd know it. And then there she'd be, a forlorn figure standing there at the bus stop in Southbury waving goodbye. It was too sad. And she never failed to tell us, half-jokingly for a while and then maybe only one-third jokingly and then one-tenth, that she wished we'd move home.
It was getting a little too real. Both of us had an uneasy lurking vision of the town somehow reclaiming us, that no matter how far we went or for how long, we'd end up back there. It's hard to explain the melancholia. When we tell people about it, they always say: But the town and the countryside are so beautiful! And there are so many extraordinary characters living there, such an amazing sociological mix! All that is true, and it's all part of the problem. The place is powerfully seductive. But for us, it's also cramped, confining, decaying, too redolent with ancient smells and sounds. Both of us know that if we ever stayed for any length of time, whatever shreds of youth we still have would be sucked right out of us. Like a reverse Shangri-La.
My brother has a theory: He says the Connecticut malaise has its origins in the Tim Durant years. That the feeling is the leftover sadness of missing our mother acutely because Durant was always taking her away somewhere. He could be right. It could all be Durant's fault. His fault that we both went and lived thousands of miles from home, his fault that forty years after he left we had to go and rip my mother out of the place she loved because we couldn't go live there. And of course, my mother chose him, over a crowd of suitors.
Christ, the way we sow the seeds of our destinies
I had for years entertained a fond but hazy vision of my mother eventually moving out to California to live near me. We'd have fun. We'd be together. Especially with Mike gone, I was always sorry about the vast continent between us and all the time that went by without the two of us seeing each other. I could give her so much more of my time and attention if I didn't have to go to Connecticut to do it. And she always said that eventually -- eventually -- she'd like to move West.
The moment of bringing her to California arrived rudely, at the absolute worst possible time. I was anything but ready. The vicissitudes of the publishing world had conspired to put me in a situation where I had about six months to write most of a long-overdue manuscript. Just when I should have been buckling down to what would have been, even under the best of circumstances, a gruelingly concentrated push to finish, I -- the world's most terrified flier, my terror compounded tenfold by terror of what I would be doing when I landed -- was getting on a plane to the east coast, without a prayer of getting any writing done for what I thought would be weeks and weeks. Ah. If only it had been mere weeks and weeks...
And it was early autumn, mid-September. The katydids were in full voice the night we arrived.
She flung her arms around us at the door just as she did whenever we came to visit. I'd been bringing Mitch to Connecticut for years by then. We always slept down in Mike's study on the first floor. There's a door there that opens onto the back terrace; if it was summer, fall or spring, which it always was because I couldn't stand to be there in the winter, we'd open it wide and let the night air waft over us, producing olfactory synesthesia of the Third Kind. The house looks out over a river valley. We'd lie there and listen to the water and the night sounds and smell the rich moist east-coast aromas of whatever season it was, so different from California smells. The visits were like gold to my mother. She'd have little parties for us. We talked and drank and had fun. Mitch was charming and gallant with her. She adored him.
Fate, whatever your definition of it or your beliefs about its mechanics, is indeed a mysterious thing. Mitch never met Mike, but years ago, in 1978, before he knew me or my mother, he'd saved an issue of Harper's magazine because of the important cover story, Oil and Water. It was about the environmental effect of oil spills, a subject near and dear to him. It was by Michael Harwood. He has that magazine to this day. Now here he was, sleeping in the very room where the piece had been written, the artifacts of the deceased author all around him, including the very typewriter it was written on. I picture Mitch holding that Harper's in his hands twenty years before, in California, looking at the cover, at the name Michael Harwood. Little could he have imagined that this man's death would someday almost turn his life inside out.
Yes, she'd flung her arms around us at the door, as if this were going to be a fun visit. My gizzard was in my mouth. I'm not good at betrayal, and no matter how we sliced it, the job we were there to do was going to involve betrayal. The reasons were all in place, and they were sound, and we had talked about it and talked about it with her, all summer long, but of course by the time it's necessary to move a person out of her home because she can't take care of herself anymore it's already too late for good sound reasons to make any sense to her. And she was still so much like her old self most of the time. If it had been just me, who caves in at the smallest yelp of pain from someone I love, especially from my mother, I would probably have pretended everything was fine and visited for a while and maybe had a few pleading and ineffectual conversations, and then I would have gone home to California and left her in her house for another winter. And I don't know what would have happened. But I was impaled by doubt. I waffled and agonized. Is this really necessary? Do we really have to do this? Aren't we seriously jumping the gun here? Is she really that bad?
The trust officer who managed the small estate left to my mother by Mike's life insurance and savings, and who was personally fond of her, was not troubled by any doubts. He was downright forceful. I've seen it so many times in my line of work, he said. So many times. Old people ignored by their offspring, left alone in their houses, losing their memories and their competence, getting ripped off and abused by opportunists, drinking, setting themselves on fire, crashing their cars. If something happens to your mother, he said, and you two are thousands of miles away, and she gets committed to a hospital and becomes a ward of the state, then you will have the devil's own time, legally and financially, extricating her from the system. Don't let it happen. Don't wait until it's too late.
And there was her stomach. A few years before, little packets of over-the-counter antacids started to appear: around her house, in the medicine cabinet, on the dashboard of her car, in the pockets of her pants. Now there were bottles of prescription medicines from three and four different gastroenterologists, overlapping appointments scrawled on her calendar. She'd gone to the Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Sharon Hospital for tests. No one could find anything wrong. The S.O.S. calls from her friends to my brother and me had included stories of my mother ricocheting from one doctor to another, mixing up appointments, forgetting which doctors she'd been to, pestering some of them after they'd exhausted every avenue so that some of them were refusing to see her any more. I called one whose name I found on five or six of the dozens of prescription bottles in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom.
"You realize that your mother is suffering from dementia, don't you?" said the voice on the other end of the line, without sympathy.
"Uh, yes," I said. Jesus. What a weird horrible ugly word.
"Your mother got hold of my home number. She called me there four times in one day. My wife was very upset."
"I apologize. It won't happen again."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"It's just that her stomach is driving her crazy. She's desperate for help. Do you have any idea at all what's wrong?"
"Probably irritable bowel syndrome."
"Ah. Hmm. Irritable bowel syndrome. Well, so, what's the treatment?"
"There is no treatment."
I was looking out over the heartbreakingly beautiful view (Link) from the back of the house. The leaves were just starting to turn. It was plain that this doctor's stomach wasn't bothering him the least little bit. No treatment? Screw you, I thought. I apologized again for my mother's importunity and hung up.
Just about every day now, the Stomach Monster reared its head. Usually in the early afternoon, right after lunch. She described it as nausea, like morning sickness or sea-sickness, sometimes punctuated by shooting pains and a dizzy, shaky feeling. She'd lie on the couch as if she'd been bonked with a two-by-four. My mother had never been sickly. She'd had little patience with people who constantly complained about their physical problems. And now here she was, plagued by a mystery malady, and losing her judgment and the ability to systematically follow through with a course of treatment or a change of diet. The only thing that helped was her evening vodka martini. She'd have one, and then she'd have another and sometimes another.
The stomach grief had taken a major turn for the worse since I'd last seen her, in May. Witnessing it up close now, it seemed to me to be her most urgent problem. The daily misery and distress aggravated her confusion and depression, drove her to desperate actions and excessive drink. It stood in the way of her just plain feeling good, the first logical step, I thought, toward improving her life. And it was obvious that unless someone took charge of running the cause of this thing to earth, and conscientiously and consistently experimenting and applying treatments because she was no longer capable of any of this herself, everything would spiral inevitably downward. We could not leave her alone any longer.
So, with a quaking heart, I screwed my feeble resolve to the sticking point. Fortunately, no one was looking to me to provide cohesion and impetus. My brother was the backbone of this operation. My mother had voluntarily made him her conservator within the past year, after her blunders with the Canadian crooks, and he was taking the responsibility seriously. If saving her from an ignominious decline and possible down-the-road disaster meant causing some pain now, then he was willing to do it. He's worked as a ski-patrol Emergency Medical Technician in Colorado, so he's trained at handling hairy life-and-death situations in a businesslike way. Unlike me. I'd heard of "tough love," but I'd always associated it with juvenile delinquents and such. Tough? Love? Never did I dream that I'd have to practice this oxymoronic concept on my mother.
We got down to it quickly. Things went amazingly well. She agreed that it was time to get out, that she couldn't possibly do it by herself, and that we should get started. She seemed almost eager. My guts began to settle into their normal arrangement. We spent a day walking through the entire house with her while she chose what she wanted to keep and what she was willing to let go. She was decisive and sensible, keeping just a few pieces for sentimental reasons. We conscientiously double-checked with her over each item. Are you sure? I'm sure, she said. We arranged for a couple of auctioneers to collect the things she was willing to part with.
As they loaded up their truck with furniture, dishes, her brass bed, her silver, breaking the set after a forty-three-year run, I wanted to go hide. It was a moment I'd been seriously dreading. I expected a scene. But she watched calmly. A little too calmly, now that I think about it.
That evening after dinner, Mitch was resting and my brother and I sat at the dining room table with her. Tommy and I were quietly elated. The worst was over. We were telling her about the groovy little apartment we'd found for her in my seaside town in northern California. A view of the ocean. Cozy, gorgeous, a block away from me. We'd send out the things she'd kept, make the apartment welcoming and cozy. Her trusty old manual typewriter would be waiting for her. She could write her memoirs. Be near me. A new life, we said. She listened, looking pleased. Much had been accomplished that day. A lot of furniture was gone, but we'd rearranged things so that the house was still comfortable and homey.
"Oh, by the way," she said, lighting a cigarette, "I've decided to put this move off until spring."
"Uh...Mom," said my brother, "you can't. We talked about this. It's all we've been talking about. It's why we're here right now. It's..."
"I WON'T GO!!" she shrieked, jolting us out of our skins. She leapt from her chair and ran into the other room. I jumped up and ran after her. She cowered on the sofa, weeping, shaking, her hands over her face. I approached, put my arms around her, tried to soothe her, but she slithered out of my grasp and ran back into the other room. "NO!" she shouted, whacking the table with the flat of her hand, plates and forks and glasses clattering. I went toward her again, supplicating. She dodged behind the chairs. "NO, NO, NO!" Could it get any worse? We, her hulking full-grown spawn, retro-children quaking at her thunder, chasing her around the room.
It took time and a lot of talking, but we did manage to calm her, reassure her, remind her what we were doing and why, though by then it was sounding more than a little hollow and tinny to my own ears. Exhausted, we all went to bed.
My mother's footsteps had always been eloquent, especially in that house. The house is on a hillside that slopes down from a road, so when you walk in the front door, which faces the road, you are on the second floor. The kitchen is on that floor now. My mother's study and a couple of bedrooms, including hers, were on the third floor. Mike's study and what had been the kitchen back in the old days when my brother and I were kids is on the first floor. The house, old and made of wood, resonates like a drum.
She was an afternoon napper, and woe to anyone who woke her up. Sound traveled easily up the old radiator pipes, so if we were fooling around on the first floor it was possible to disturb her on the third. And she moved fast: we'd hear running footsteps, and scatter. Or later, when we were teenagers, partying downstairs late at night with friends, and heard boom-boom-boom-boom-boom! on the top floor and heading down the stairs, we'd crowd out the back door like slapstick comedians in a silent film. Her wrath had nothing to do with us smoking dope and drinking beer and staying up all night. She didn't give a damn about that. I was SLEEPING! she'd yell.
I overheard a conversation between her and Durant once, on the second floor. I must have been about eight. They didn't know I'd come up the stairs and was in the next room. There were scuffles and whispers. She was crying, her voice anguished but low so my brother and I wouldn't hear. "You don't want me. You don't need me!" she said, and ran up the stairs -- boom-boom-boom-boom-boom! -- to the bedroom.
Now, on the terrible night that she'd run away from us, I lay awake in the wee hours on the floor of Mike's study. I listened to my mother's agitated footsteps overhead, up and down the stairs, up and down, pacing, pacing, pacing. I tried to put myself in her mind, but I couldn't. She was on another planet.
The house looked strange, of course. Furniture and art and books I'd been seeing
for forty years were gone. There were peculiar blank spaces. The house was becoming
a visible metaphor of my mother's mind.
A couple of rooms stayed untouched. The upstairs storage room, the kitchen, and her study. I wanted badly to get into that study. Somewhere in the geological layers were my mother's Lost Works. I desperately wanted to get my hands on them. I read and re-read her novels every couple of years, especially the first one. But these lost things I hadn't seen for ages.
There was, for instance, a hilarious series of letters she'd written to Richard Nixon in the seventies, in the deadpan voice of a not-too-literate housewife protesting, say, the waste of gasoline to fly all those "aeroplanes" in military airshows when in her day "the Drum and Bugle Corps marched for free." The letters were always written by hand in a purposely laborious cursive script and signed "Yours in the Flag, Mrs. Mary Harwood." They got passed around among her literati friends and were gleefully called the "Yours in the Flag" letters. The only responses she got from the White House were form letters of the "Thank you for your interest" type.
And there were some short stories-eerie little Outer Limits-like gems, never published, buried (I hoped) deep in her files. There was one called "The Soul of Mrs. Gurney" that I really, really wanted to find. It was about a man and wife, married forever, harnessed together like two mules, mired in habit and routine. It ended with the usually-docile submissive husband using an arcane bit of voodoo he gleans from an obscure little book to sever his wife's soul from her body while she's dreaming. And there was another story, called "The Hunting Knife," a dark tale of an older woman's flirtation with a teenage boy who has criminal tendencies. I hadn't seen these stories since before I was a teenager, but their quality was obvious to me even then. And there was the third novel, never finished, about hobo kids during the Depression, started in the seventies but abandoned when the Audubon project came along.
There was another item I was particularly keen to find, and I did. It was on the top shelf of the closet in the guest room on the third floor: A big glossy black-and-white photograph, with "Irish News Agency, 1954" stamped on the back. It was the original of John Huston kissing my mother at her wedding to Durant. Ha! I was elated. I'd thought it was lost forever, and now here it was in my hands. Tomorrow I'd make copies so I could flash it around to my friends back home. How many of them had pictures of their mothers being kissed by John Huston? I'd always liked bragging about my mother. I could do some serious showing off with this picture.
A few hours later, the picture had vanished from where I left it atop the bureau. I looked everywhere, including my mother's study, packed with books and papers. I asked her if she had moved it. Did you hide it? Put it in a book or something? Think hard, I begged. I really wanted that picture.
But she couldn't remember -- either whether she had moved it, or if she had, where she might have put it. It was just gone. I eyed her crammed study. It's somewhere in there, I thought. It could be in a thousand different places in there, but that's where it is.
One day soon after the auctioneers had taken away the furniture, my brother and I made a foray into her study, to try to at least start organizing the stacks and piles and boxes. She stopped us. No, she said. I'll do this myself. I could hardly blame her. By then it was obvious what her son and daughter, whom she loved unconditionally, had become: a marauding army. She still loved us, though, even after all of this. I deferred to her, though I was dreadfully worried that she'd throw things out that I wanted to find -- like her stories.
A few days before it was time for us to leave, an old friend stepped in gallantly to help. Phil, a theatre pal from decades back, came up from New York to stay for a while so that when we left she wouldn't be abruptly and echoingly alone in her strangely half-empty house. He'd go back to New York and come up again toward the end of October to spend the final week with her. He'd help her pack, make sure she stuck to the plan. Then Mike's best buddy, Dave, would escort her and her cat, Polly, out on the airplane.
Mitch and I would go out to California and get everything ready. We'd make her happy. No more dinners alone, lots of loving attention, vitamins, acupuncturists. I'd get right to work on the stomach problem. I'd restore her faltering memory. Give her a new life.
We spent October fixing up her apartment in California. The place looked exquisite. I began to experience a sort of forgetfulness myself. Here were her books and pictures. Here was a nice long table with her typewriter on it. Here was a view of the ocean. My mother was coming. My fun wonderful brilliant mother. There'd be jolly dinners. Parties. She'd make friends.
She arrived on schedule at the end of October.
On the ride home from the airport with her and Dave and the cat, we told her we were all going to go to her wonderful apartment. She started crying. Apartment? What apartment? I thought I was going to be living with you, she said. Something akin to panic started to push open a door in my mind, but I shoved it closed.
We soothed her and reassured her. She seemed to like the apartment. When I put her to bed that night, she said: "You want me. You really want me." "Of course I do," I said, hearing that hollow tinny sound again.
She got a new life, all right, and so did we.