This story originally appeared in Streetlight Magazine.
The room was humid with the scent of pine cleaner and Tierney, already sick with nerves, nearly gagged. She dropped her purse on the bed and went to the window that hadn’t budged since she checked in. Putting all of her weight into it she strained so hard a grunt escaped, leaving her feeling stupid with effort. The admonishment to try, try again was neatly countered by the definition of insanity. Another dueling dictum.
The acrid stench triggered a particularly nasty childhood memory. She’d used the disinfectant to clean the dining room rug as a birthday surprise for her mother and turned a large section of the amethyst heirloom orange. That misguided event inaugurated the continuing pattern of Corrine’s piercing ridicule chased by over-the-top remorse, a parenting style that could be described as lacerate then lavish.
Tierney pushed the desk chair over to prop the door open as the kids from the neighboring room clomped by on their nightly pilgrimage to the icemaker. They glanced in with unabashed curiosity.
“Hey,” Tierney smiled.
“Hi!” the younger boy enthused.
The older kid glowered. Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, he always appeared preternaturally grim to Tierney; as if what was coming wasn’t any better than what had just passed. I hear ya, brother, she thought. “So what are you guys doing in Charlottesville? You’ve been at the motel as long as me!”
“Waiting for our new house to get ready!” the little one said. “There’s a tire swing over a creek. It’s almost empty now but it fills up sometimes. I can only go with Daddy. I don’t have any friends yet. But that’s temporarily.”
“Come on, Caleb!” the older brother commanded, cutting short Tierney’s laugh. “We gotta get the ice.”
“Daddy’s bringing pizza for me and Reuben!” Caleb announced.
“Nice,” Tierney grinned.
On their return trip the older one stopped again. “Just so you know, I’m not moving here. I’m going back to Baltimore to live with my mom.”
Caleb’s face crumpled. Then he punched. “Stop saying that!”
They both took off down the hall, ice cubes jumping from the bucket like a trail of breadcrumbs. Jesus. Tierney doubted she’d ever feel equipped to be a parent and fervently hoped she was fit to adopt the puppy she was planning on. She knew a kitten made more sense given her hours at the magazine but she was convinced that going down that path would seal her marital status.
Spinsters have cats.
Tierney had a whole catalogue of theories. Like the more you love something in the store, the more you’ll question your judgment when you pull it out of the bag. Guaranteed. And middle-naming a kid Ray, Lee or Wayne pretty much guarantees he’ll become a serial killer.
She sighed and tried to steel herself for what was coming. Delivering the news was going to be an unmitigated nightmare and she’d put it off as long as possible.
The fact that Corrine had found uncharted territory on the psychosis spectrum wasn’t going to make it any better. The descent this time had bypassed the usual pit stops on the way up. There’d been no wild spending sprees prompting calls from Visa; no copious letters to long-distanced friends professing previously unfelt feelings; no stray men answering her phone. Just a policeman with the news that Tierney’s fifty-five-year-old mother had gone for a stroll along University Avenue. Naked.
The hospital social worker called and informed Tierney that Corrine’s independent living days were over. “Long-term arrangements are long overdue,” the woman had said with more than a hint of judgment, making Tierney’s eye twitch a hundred and ten miles away. “I doubt she’s even taking her medicine!” the woman accused.
The last time Tierney had been home she’d filled the container with the weekly meds and dropped it, sending scores of similar tablets rolling for shelter. Scooping up the pills she’d wondered how her mother had performed this painstaking chore every Sunday, but she hadn’t dwelt on it.
An assisted-living facility with a mental health wing was the only option. But making that happen was a nightmare. Paying for a place without cheerfully-smocked sadists meant putting the ancestral home on the market. And in order to do that Tierney had to get power of attorney because the only thing Corrine had ever loved consistently was the gabled Victorian her great-grandfather had built.
Taking a leave of absence Tierney had started the long haul to get it all done. And every step of the way she kept asking herself, what kind of daughter does this? And even though she knew that the answer was ‘the kind who doesn’t want to go down in a double drowning,’ she was flooded with guilt-ridden doubt. And now, the house-closing was happening in just a few hours and Tierney still hadn’t gotten up the courage to have the conversation. Fuck it! Just get it all over with already. She grabbed her purse.
The old neighborhood was still wildly expensive but now punctuated by frat houses. According to Corrine, brothers in Toga, beach and Guido attire regularly peed in bushes and threw up on the sidewalk. When Tierney was little the most outrageous behavior on University Circle had belonged to her mother. Back then most of it took place indoors.
She pulled up in front of the mansion and thought of the dueling dictum that she first framed as a child. What you see is what you get versus you can’t tell a book by its cover. Even at a young age she knew which one was right.
Because she could never predict when her mother would come into her room singing show tunes in the middle of the night or weeping over a scratch on the front door, Tierney learned to hide sign-up sheets for parent-teacher conferences and threw away all birthday invitations requiring rides. Sometimes Corrine’s eye make-up would be a tip-off—ranging from a quick slash of discreet liner to cobalt clown powder reaching her eyebrows — but that depended on her mother getting up in the morning at all.
Tierney had kept everything under wraps until the afternoon she got her S.A.T.’s back. Nothing had really screamed crazy-out-of-control-scary-person-unafraid -of-making – a-public-scene until that day. They’d gone to the Downtown Mall to celebrate her scores. At dinner at an outdoor restaurant, her mother surprised her with a beautiful necklace of flat onyx beads that she lovingly clasped around her daughter’s neck. The beads pressed coolly against Tierney’s skin and for a moment she leaned back into her mother and closed her eyes.
And let down her guard.
“I know what you’re thinking, you ungrateful little bitch!” Corrine had screeched, pulling the necklace so hard the string snapped. Stones skipped off the bricks in every direction. The volume on the street had muted as Tierney’s private shame was broadcast. Shame muffled everything. “You just can’t wait to leave, can you?”
Tierney used to marvel at her mother’s ability to slip inside her head. Because, in fact, her very first thought when she opened the test scores was escape. Later, a psych professor would lecture about the psychotic’s ability to read imperceptible nuance like a billboard. Until then, she wondered if her mother was a witch in addition to being crazy. College had been four years of peace. By constraining her relationship with Corrine to weekly calls and email, Tierney thrived. She worked on the newspaper, was a resident advisor and even won a prestigious fellowship to write fiction in England. Though desperate to take it she knew she had to decline. There were limits to her limits.
More than once she wondered how her life would have been if she’d accepted the prize. Would she still be hurtling from her twenties, childless, her mother dragging behind like an unpredictable Rottweiler? Or would she have used the Atlantic as a moat, found true love in a quaint village, started a family there, picked up the bizarre accent favored by expats like Madonna, penned a novel, and truly recovered from her childhood?
Water under the foundation, she thought, letting herself in. Corrine’s recent collecting had pushed the place into near squalor. Just a few weeks before the front hall had been cluttered with so much weird shit Tierney had to scoot sideways to get to the kitchen. There were cartons of envelopes from a defunct bank and paperbacks without covers and single shoes gathered from roadsides all over town.
But it was cavernous now, stripped of history and presence. Everything was gone except for the old blue vase with the chapped lip that was hidden behind the door and overlooked by the movers. When Tierney’s grandparents lived in the house the shiny cobalt urn held forsythia in the spring and holly branches at Christmas. Later weird things would end up inside, bills and gloves and recipes ripped from doctors’ office magazines. Tierney pushed it with her foot so she’d remember to take it with her. Maybe she’d put some flowers in it and bring it to Corrine. She could say something like, I sold your house — but here’s a vase!
Tierney wanted one last look at her old bedroom. Without the dolls. There’d been a population explosion in there over the past couple of years. Perhaps sharing her aversion, the cleaning crew had put off working in there, waiting to pitch the creepy toys – grubby boys in sailor suits, swaddled infants in pink and blue, a plethora of jilted brides — out the window into the yawning dumpster below. They didn’t know Tierney was in the hallway when they started speaking for the toys in weird voices before their final flight.
“Does this dress make me look big?” one of the guys squeaked.
“You bet your fat, plastic ass it does!”
Tierney had laughed aloud causing an embarrassed silence to spill out into the hall.
The walls were catching the waning light, deepening into a darker blue. She’d been in tenth grade when she and Corrine had painted the room. While her mother had had a hard time staying on-task, migrating from one impatient patch of indigo to the next, it had been fun. They had Chinese food and finished the project in the middle of the night. While Tierney was at school the next day her mother painted hydrangeas and irises in irregularly spaced bouquets on all four walls. It was a gift of beauty.
In truth, there were many moments like that. Moments when her mother’s sun came out and kissed her skin. When she paid rapt attention and would walk up the stairs just to gently ruffle her daughter’s hair. And, of course, that was the problem. Consistently terrible was better than occasionally good. That was the sucker bet.
Tierney felt sick, unable to imagine what would happen when her mother learned her house was gone. How she had been betrayed. Sadness, thick and inert, descended like a collapsed tent. Blinded by unexpected tears she ran down the steps, grabbed the urn and pulled shut the door behind her for the last time. The arrangements had come together lightning fast, propelled by the tongue-clucking social worker. At one point Tierney felt like screaming, where were you people when I was a kid? When Corrine was shaking my childhood by its shoulders, leaving me reeling and terminally nervous?
Instead she followed recommendations, got everything in order.
Tierney understood that Corrine couldn’t help her sickness. No one would want to live like that. I should just move home, play the hand I was dealt, bring her back to the house. At least it’s clean now.
Tierney wouldn’t last a week.
Even the staff at the hospital, usually stalwart in their ability to withstand verbal assaults, was losing patience. Getting pissed, in fact. Corrine’s attacks were personal. She didn’t complain about the C.I.A. putting cameras in the bathrooms and transmitters in the cutlery. No, Corrine sharpened her tongue and called attention to the wide part dividing a nurse’s scalp, the halitosis of another. She told a clerk that the canvas bag she carried stamped with her grandbaby’s picture on it only advertised how ugly ran in families. And this was what was said in Tierney’s presence. God only knew what came out when she wasn’t around to deflect. She was convinced her mother’s words clung to her like a smell.
She found a space and parked. On the third floor she pushed the buzzer and waited for someone to let her in, rereading the yellowing sign imploring visitors to see staff before serving legal papers on patients. She wondered about its genesis. Was this where people had divorce papers delivered? Eviction notices? Was there a long line of process servers who waited for the relative protection of a locked setting before passing out summonses?
And then it occurred to her that the note meant her, too. She needed to inform the staff about the impending house closing. Maybe this means I’ll have a reprieve!
An orderly on his way for a break opened the door for her. He was biting into a Snickers. His tongue pickpocketed a piece of chocolate from the corner of his mouth.
“You better put your flak jacket on! She’s in rare form today.”
“Perfect. Life’s already too long for this shit,” she smiled. “Hey, is Dr. Morrow around?”
“He should be finishing up with a group in about 10 minutes.”
“Hang tough, now.” The door latched ominously between them and not for the first time she wondered what happened in the case of fire. Exits were always something she liked to be sure of. Also, what about the violent patients? What happened to them when smoke started slipping under the metal door? Do they all run outside together, take a brief time-out from being crazy? Do the orderlies stay on duty? Or is it every man for himself when the shit really hits the fan?
An exhausting array of symptoms was on display in the day room. Michael sat on the couch compulsively counting cards. Again and again his fingers and lips moved in tandem. She’d talked to him once and learned he was afraid that between one tally and the last a card might have vanished.
“Even though there’s no place it could have gone?” she’d asked, truly interested.
“And if it did disappear, so what?” she probed, thinking the reasonableness of her question might help him.
“So what, fuck you,” he’d responded, making Tierney laugh.
Next to the card counter sat silent Glenda, whose rapidly moving eyes freaked Tierney out.
“Hi Glenda. Hi Percy.” He was watching TV. He predated all of the patients and most of the staff. As far as Tierney could tell, Percy didn’t seem to have issues that would have distinguished him from most of the people she knew. He lifted a hand.
“You’re late,” Corrine accused as soon as Tierney crossed the threshold.
“How can I be late? I didn’t tell you when I was coming!”
“I don’t like having guests at mealtimes. I find it rude. Did you bring me my mail?”
“There wasn’t any. All junk stuff–”
“How dare you make that decision for me?”
Tierney felt guilty. “Sorry.”
“That’s just like you. Smug and self-righteous. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re really like. And don’t think I don’t tell people about what an ungrateful young woman you’ve turned out to be—”
“Ok, Mom. Ok. I can only stay a little while because I have to run over to Harrison’s office.” She regretted the words immediately but fortunately Corrine wasn’t in one of her hyper-alert moods.
“Did you know that I’m Harrison’s only actress client?”
A spontaneous gaiety signaled a transition into flirtatious mode, and Tierney could practically hear cocktail ice tinkling in her mother’s words. Corrine’s short stint in Hollywood had been the highpoint of her existence and remembering it meant a respite from hostility. Last visit she’d greeted her daughter with a litany of transgressions beginning with recalcitrant toilet training habits (YOU’D HOLD IT UNTIL AFTER I PUT YOU IN YOUR SNOWSUIT); wending through the misadventures of elementary school (YOU JUST PRETENDED NOT TO UNDERSTAND DIVISION), then a flyover above adolescence (I HAD TO CLEAN VOMIT FROM THE KITCHEN FLOOR AFTER HOMECOMING) finishing with the present (NO WONDER YOU CAN’T FIND A MAN).
The last, a piercing nastiness that caused Tierney to gasp, was, for some reason, what flipped the switch. “Oh! I’m sorry, darling girl. Sometimes I don’t know what gets into me!”
Then, to flagellate herself in a more comfortable position Corrine had collapsed on the sad little bed. And Tierney had been forced into the familiar role of absolver, rubbing her mother’s shoulder through the Ralph Lauren sateen. “It’s alright, Mom.”
“You’ve never been anything but a wonderful daughter and here I am wounding you. Please forgive me! Tell me you remember the good times, too.”
Which, as usual, Tierney did. She sighed and checked her watch. Corrine hissed, “You just got here!”
“I’ll be back in the morning. Listen, you really ought to try and lighten up on the staff, Mom. You know it can’t be easy working here.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Fine. I need to get going, Mom. Try to get a good night of sleep.”
“What was the point of even coming?”
“I just wanted to stop by and say good night.” She kissed the top of her mother’s head, purposely not looking at the injured expression as she said goodbye.
She exited the room, congratulating herself. In and out in less than fifteen minutes, she thought. Pretty soon I’ll get this down to a drive-by. Wave at the building. She took a steeling breath, threw back her shoulders and went in search of the psychiatrist to let him know about the house sale.
“Hey, Dr. Morrow,” she said, tentatively through the open office door. She always felt nervous around him. Did shrinks have cray-dar?
“Come in, young lady. What can I do for you?” He had a disturbing pattern of red patches on the top of an otherwise smooth head. She wondered if he’d been to a dermatologist. Does he even know they’re there? What if nobody ever told him about it? Should I?
“Just wanted to let you know Mom’s house sold before it even officially hit the market. A cash sale. World’s fastest closing is happening this evening.”
“Well, congratulations! And how does your mother feel about that?”
She looked at him for a moment, unsure. “Um, Jean – the social worker, recommended I not say anything until it was over.”
The crimson patches on his doctor-head turned angry.
“Is there a problem?” she whispered.
“I would have preferred your mother be a part of the process.”
His expression seemed to catalog a litany of complaints against the social worker and even though she wasn’t a fan of the woman either, Tierney was acutely uncomfortable. Also, she felt complicit in the bad decision. Should she have gone rogue? Asked for the superior to sign off on it? Tierney made a tiny shrug with her face, a signature conversational garnish she’d never been able to stop. “So, can we all talk to Mom tomorrow? I mean it’s gone too far to back out, I think. With my luck I’d get sued.”
“Tomorrow before 10:00 will be fine.”
She burst into tears in the car. Right before the exit to Harrison’s she had this impulse to just keep going. Not even stop in DC to pack up her things, just keep going. To Vermont maybe. Start over. Work in a diner. Screw journalism. Write the novel she carried in her head. Disappear. Live in a little town with a beautiful view. Get the dog of her dreams. Fall in love with an uncomplicated man. Forget her past.
She’d never do it.
Damatto, the lawyer’s ancient boxer, was lying on the porch. The poor thing didn’t even bother lifting his head when she bent to pat him. It made her sad. Everything made her sad. She took a deep breath, put on a brave face and knocked.
“How you holding up?” Harrison asked, his eyes doing their mischievous smile thing that always got to her. They literally twinkled. She’d had a crush on him since she was fifteen and he first started working with her mother.
“Depends on what you mean by holding up. I’m here. More or less.”
He nodded, ushered her to a wingback chair next to a black lacquered coffee table. A neat stack of papers with yellow stickies sat waiting. She averted her gaze. “Harrison, do you think I’m the worst daughter in the world?”
“Teardrop, I don’t know anybody who’d have put up with what you have all these years. I can’t tell you how often I wished there was something I could do when you were a kid. I was so glad when you went away to school.”
“Sweet Jesus. I even talked to a couple other lawyers. The family law guy said that exposing you to foster care probably wouldn’t have been any kind of improvement. The devil you know and all.” He paused. “She didn’t ever hurt you did she?”
“Only my heart.” Tierney suddenly felt the tears began to pool again. “Shit. “Do you have anything? Bourbon, heroin?”
“Hang tight a minute.”
She sipped from the squat crystal, then took a bigger drink. “When a person is crazy and says really wretched things some of the time does that mean they’re still thinking them the rest of the time?”
“Honey, we all have a billion thoughts a day.”
“She loves her house. And in her own fucked up way loves me, too.”
“That she does.”
“How am I going to take away her home, Harrison? How can I do that to her?”
“Look Tierney. You’re not selling it to run off to Fiji. And honestly, even if you were, I’d defend you. But I don’t know how else we can make this work. She can’t be there alone and I damn sure won’t let you come back here to be her caretaker. Period.”
Tierney finished her drink, took a deep breath and reached for the stack of papers. At first she tried to read the ridiculous language but it wasn’t long before the black syllables held hands and fell onto the carpet, one after the other. Fuck it.
The ride back to the motel was mined with places she wished she’d gone as a child and places she wished she hadn’t. Places of possibility. And their opposite. Then Tierney pulled into the parking lot feeling trapped and homesick and full of longing as ever.