While my mother was between men, she took me to an open house. She did things like this. We followed the realtor through the rooms for a while before my mother sent me off. “Little girl,” pleaded the realtor, but I no longer answered to that call. When I heard my mother whistle, I returned to her side. The realtor extolled the extravagance of the master bedroom, which was indeed extravagant; it had a master porch and a master bathroom with little gold taps. My mother took me up in her arms and I whispered in her ear.
“The basement please!” my mother demanded. The realtor thanked everyone for coming and said he must make ready for the next tour. “The basement please,” said my mother when everyone had filed out. “Miss,” said the realtor. “Now look here,” said my mother. “I intend to buy this house. In fact I am prepared to begin arrangements on the spot, here and now. Perhaps you do not know a sale when you smell one. But I do, and I insist that you show me the basement at once.”
The realtor produced a ring of keys and led us to the basement door and opened the door, saying of the basement that there was an explanation of sorts for what we would see, and that no one could blame him for omitting this room from the open house. He was but a junior rep after all, just making his bones, and he needed whatever sales he could get. Of course he had no intention of keeping this room from us. Or from anyone! No! No, no! No, the truth would have come out at its appointed time, as all truths ultimately must. Didn’t we agree that a truth out of season did no one any good? All the while he obstructed our descent of the basement stair, so that he looked up at us, leaning on the banister as if beseeching the mercy of a high judge. “Oh you darling boy,” said my mother, petting his hair. And down we went, and there in the basement was not washer and dryer nor weevils and webs, but a giant hole.
After a look down and in, my mother told me to go upstairs and wait for her, which I did, and here is what I heard:
“And how do you mean to explain this?”
“I assure you, this house is entirely up to code. You won’t find one red mark on the survey. In fact I implore you, hire your own inspectors. They will tell you just what I am telling you now; that, odd though this feature may be, it poses not one structural threat to the home itself. You will be so happy here.”
“Oh I expect I will. But where does it lead?”
“Ha-ha. Aha. That is a complex question indeed.”
Now I became bored and went outside, and then my mother reemerged, slipping her sunglasses over her eyes. The realtor stood at the screen door, waving, smiling, smoothing his hair to his scalp. There was some further controversy by telephone; my mother listened for a long time and then threatened to hire her own inspectors indeed, see if she didn’t! This settled the matter. We moved in very soon after, and I asked my mother if should I keep out of the basement.
“Why should you keep out of the basement?” she said. “This is your home now. You may go wherever you wish. Eat breakfast in the bathtub. Pee into the kitchen sink. There are new rules now, and the new rules are that there are no rules. By all means, be in the basement.”
And for a while I obeyed. But strange though the basement was, its appeal was only fleeting. If you held your face over the edge, you got a chilly breeze upward, stiff enough to hold your hair back. And if you breathed in through your nose, you got a soapy smell, like mashed earthworms after a rain, or just the rain itself. If you whistled into it, you heard your whistle echoing down, until there was nothing. But there wasn’t much more to it than this.
“But aren’t you worried that I’ll fall in?” I said one night. I ate dinner, she drank wine.
“Do you plan to fall in?” she said. “Is that a thing you intend to do?”
I said that I didn’t think so.
“Then I reject the question. In this house we shall do only what we mean to do.” She raised her glass. “Excelsior!” And I raised my own, and we touched their rims. That night she fell asleep on the couch with the TV on, snoring, and though I tried to move her to her own room, I couldn’t. She was wont to do this lately.
Once or twice I asked her, where did it lead? The hole.
“To China,” she said. “To an identical basement in China. And if you fall into the hole, you will become a part of that family, only you will walk on the ceiling. If you drop a penny, it will fall into the sky. Life is much more difficult there. You would be unhappy there. You are always dropping things. And if you went into that hole, you would soon find yourself penniless. No, don’t go.” And another night, when the house—or something like it—was getting the best of her: “It leads straight to Hell. Hell has sprung a leak and it is right here under us.” And another: “It leads nowhere. It is a pit with no bottom.” She returned her head to her hand. Paperwork lay before her, perhaps taxes or bills. I couldn’t see her eyes.
So it was nothing, the basement, and I put it out of my mind entirely. I thought not one thought about it. My mother was often out nights, and sometimes she came home delirious and hauled me up out of bed with an embrace around the neck, waltzing me through the rooms like a cornsilk doll. So I began to read my mother’s books, which were very old, beginning with the oldest and working up—Malory, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the German fellow, and the Bristol fellow who had fits and spoke in divine verse—I ran my finger over their gold-stitched names. I also got in the habit of only pretending to sleep, but really lying in the darkness, listening through the darkness for any sound of my mother, her footfalls on the porch, her key in the lock. If I had not developed this habit I would never have heard, one certain evening, what I heard, if I can be said to have heard it at all, which was neither footsteps, nor the sigh of the opening door. Yet I knew she was suddenly in the house as if by sorcery. The whole house was dark, and my hair stood up. I shut my book, which lay open on my chest. What if she was in some trouble? We were often in trouble. The world was full of danger for us. We were stolen down to the underworld by devils, or else our heads were cut off outright, or else we were burned on a pyre and our ashes got mixed into the dog’s dinner, or else we were put up in high towers with just our spinning wheels, and often these places were defended by dragons and hellhounds and serpents with fangs of flowing poison. But what were serpents to Sigurd? Did Sigurd not laugh at serpents? Were serpents not as worms to him, and did he not just kind of kick them aside with his mailed boot and snatch up Brüunhilde in his arms? I must master my fear, I said, and I must go into that darkness, and so I did, and there she was, my mother, in the basement, looking down, down … I touched her shoulder and she fell into my arms. “Oh Frankie,” she said. “Oh Frankie, I am so lonely, so very lonely. Will no one ever love me?”
“I love you,” I said. “I will love you forever.” And I embraced her. Later, when she had dried her eyes, she said to me, “That’s enough.”
In the end we moved out of that house. When we drove away, my mother looked back at it and spat out the window. “I must have been out of my mind,” she said, and away we went. I had a white streamer on a plastic pole, which I held out of the window into the breeze.
We were not very much longer for each other. There were other houses, one after another, and at a point I said, “Enough!” “So you are going,” said my mother. “Very good. You will get me your address so that I may send your things after you.” I said she needn’t bother; I had everything I would need here in this case. She removed the baking sheet from the oven and swept two chicken Kievs into the garbage. “I shall have no more need of eating, nor drinking,” she said. “Frankly it will be a relief.” There wasn’t much more to say. I promised to return one day. “Return to what?” she said. “I expect I shall be far away by then. You give me back my life, my dear.” And she gave me a kiss on each cheek, which were somehow wet. When my things did come by mail, the return address hadn’t changed. “Ha!” I said. And yet I sat looking at it for a time.
And there was among those things you will never guess what; the shelf of very old books that I had long ago gotten halfway through! “My word,” I said, holding one up to the boy, the Malory, which now wore a coat of dust that saddened me. “I read this when I was only a girl.” He took it from me. He was such a grabby one. “Did you like it very much?” he said. “Oh very much yes.” “Then I will read it,” he said. “I will read it and learn everything about it.” And indeed he must have read it, because soon he proposed and supplied me with a bridal gown of fine black lace and a hennin with black lappets, and up we went to a top-floor condo in a highrise with many, many floors, and this was all despair for me. “Oh it’s all wrong,” I said one evening, in the deep of our marriage. “Do you understand nothing?” I snatched the books from him—he was such a slow reader—and hid them away for good. Some time later I came upon him in the kitchen. I had come to apologize for some trifling disagreement. But before I could speak he turned to face me, and he took the blade of a little fruit knife with which he’d been paring peaches and with it he cut his own throat. His blood came down his chest in a great rush. And though much of this is now a blur—it was so long ago now—I recall the most ghastly thing, that the slash on his throat writhed as he drew his breaths, and it was like a second mouth, toothless and mute … He didn’t die but he very well might have. When he was well, we divided our things. This left the matter of the condo, which he considered foregone. “It is a house of horrors to me now,” he said. This was a delicate thing; I protested and refused and exhorted him to be sensible. I said that it was a house of horrors to me as well, and I spoke sideways of “the accident,” so that he might at once remember it and forget it. But in fact I have been very happy here. The view is exquisite; the whole of the city lies at my feet, and it is a great dominion. I have remodeled every inch of this apartment over the years. If he had died where he had stood, and were his ghost to come into this room to haunt me, he would be most bewildered.
And I am proud to say that I have not had the troubles with men my mother had. A man displeases me and poof! he is gone from my sight at once. If there is something he feels he must know, I point to this spot in the kitchen, where now stands an exquisite dishwasher, and say, “Would you believe that on this very spot I watched a man cut his own throat? He did it in my name and lived to tell the tale of it.” Woe betide the man who enquires any further than this. We are so different, my mother and I. I look for her letters, but they don’t come. “Good,” I say. “I am pleased when the dead stay dead.”
But an age elapses and the sea gives up her dead, the furrows give up their dead, the shores and the gallows give up their dead, and a letter does eventually come, and the letter is very simple. I call her to verify its facts. “Oh I have been all over,” she says. “I have been to Crete and to Brittany and to the Barbary Coast.” But she says her time is at hand. Her days as a shuttlecock are over, and frankly she is lonely for me. After our little talk I return to my book, and by chance the book is open to a certain engraving by the French fellow that I like, of the poor souls entering the Iron City. It is dusk in my room, because I have built for my bed a canopy of fine mesh, in order that here it shall always be dusk, gloaming, no matter the hour. I have packed a case to visit her. There it sits, the very case I packed when I first set out from home. I will pack this case once each week until my mother is dead.
I return, my mother is old, so old that the case falls from my hand, and my hand flies to my mouth, and I embrace her and lift her in my arms and she weighs nothing—nothing—and when our valedictions are done, I whisper to her that I have kept my promise at last, and she says, “Barely,” and her voice is like the beating of a hummingbird’s heart.
For a time I amuse her with stories of my life, about which she knows nothing. “Yes yes,” she says, “but tell me about your boys and your men. It has been an age.” And I say, “What is to tell? There once were many and now there are few.” “Let us go back in our minds,” she says, “you and I. I am curious to know if you have done better than I did.” So I tell her about a certain young man from the building trade who was very anxious about his mind. He called himself an imbecile and wouldn’t hear otherwise. After making love, he once took an interest in the book I was reading and tried to peer at it over my shoulder. It happened to be a picture book, and he ran his finger up and down the length of a tower, which was being cut in two by a bolt of lightning, its top half tumbling into the surf. “Oh my dear boy,” I said. He was morose for a week, and then he said very carefully over dinner, “You think I am dumb.” “What?” I cried, stifling laughter. “You think I am dumb,” he said, “and that my being dumb makes me easy to govern. You ride over me roughshod. I am a laughingstock among my fellows.” “My darling, my darling, come here.” I embraced him, and he went to sleep in my arms. But soon after, he broke in and knocked my walls in with a hammer. “You may outsmart me,” he roared, “but you will not outsmart this!” And he raised his hammer over his head, to brain me! “Indeed not!” I cried, and I stood, great with wrath, and he was powerless before me. “Be gone!” I said.
But of this next part, I say nothing to my mother: In the end it took two neighbors of mine to haul him out, and he howled down the cement stairwell, until his voice was like a demon’s, hooting up from Hell. This was an embarrassment. “Are you all right?” asked the neighbors upon returning. “I am perfectly well thank you.” “You don’t look all right. You look kind of messed up. Here: Let us help you.” They began to pick up shards of the wall. “Begone,” I said. “Begone, all of you. Begone and never return.” There are moments now, moments in the elevator, moments in the lobby … But a woman must always hold her head up; she must carry herself as if her mouth is full of blood. Of the other young man and the fruit knife I also say nothing to my mother, who nods off while I talk. She looks at me with a little fire in her drooping eye. But talking wears her out, and so does listening. We have so little to say.
But! This reminds me of so much. For me, talking is like a river running through a lake, at once draining it and filling it up. I say, “What about that hole?” “What hole?” says my mother. “That hole in that basement of ours, with the breeze blowing up. What a strange thing! Whatever did the inspectors say about it?” “I don’t remember any hole.” Later she comes to her wits; the inspectors had never come to see the basement at all. That had been an idle threat. The talk drops between us like a felled partridge. I have been gone a long time, after all, and when I am with her, it is like we have only ever known each other by description.