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Tuesday, February 3, 1998
By Paul Ford
I visited my mother last weekend. I spent some time in a car with her.
The last time I'd been in the same car with her, Thanksgiving, 1996, we began to fight. She became upset and beat herself in the head with her fist. I asked her to stop the car, and to let me out.
"If you try to get out of the car," she said, "I will smash the car into the car in front of us."
She pushed on the gas. I spoke calmly: "I'm sorry, I was wrong. Let's slow down and not say anything." She slowed the car. I stayed quiet as she screamed.
I slept at a friend's place that night, and left back for Jersey City the next day. My brother called me a week later.
"How did you get Mom so upset?" he asked.
But this last weekend went better. We spoke about Clinton, adultery, and creative writing. She is selling the house I grew up in. I hadn't seen the inside in eight years; I'd been kicked out when I was fifteen. She rented it out soon after.
She told me I could sleep there, alone, on a cot. The rooms were empty. I'd never said goodbye to the place, and never realized I had wanted to.
It worked like a palace of memory. I remembered finding my mother screaming in one room for no reason, and she wouldn't stop. I remember age fourteen, sitting with bottles of chlorine and ammonia, wondering if I mixed them right whether they would just destroy my lungs or end me. I was stuffed with drama and bullshit.
When I was ten and eleven, I slept on a cot in the attic. I liked talk radio; the voices soothed me to sleep. At night, I listened to Philly's 1210 WCAU AM replay old radio broadcasts from the 1940's, my pillow reddened by the glow of the clock radio. I heard The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jack Benny Show, and Dragnet. I avoided music; I liked news radio, too. KYW 1060 broadcasts at 50,000 watts; they would recite the same stories every half hour: rapes, politics, murders, and weather, the unchanging flow of important information. A tragic thing has happened to someone you never met; a storm is coming; the stock market is up; the time is 10:02. The teletype machines rambled in the background. I listened all night when the Challenger exploded, trying to reason it out, after a snow day off from school. They named Christa McAuliffe, over and over. But still, the weather came--more snow--and the incrememnts of announced time piled up. I once met an anchor from KYW; she signed a piece of Steno paper for me, the only autograph I've ever asked for. Her name was, I swear, "Rika Dufus."
Someone nailed down the loose floorboard, hiding place for toys, and later, pictures of naked women. The old clawfoot iron tub still dominated the bathroom; I remembered stretching my length, laying in its bottom, when I was three feet shorter.
Downstairs again, I saw my new reflection, too tall for the full length mirror, and remembered, eleven years ago, wrapping my stomach and chest in a corset of duct tape to hide my gut, before leaving to catch the bus to middle school. I saw: the closet where my confirmation suit had hung; the upstairs bathroom where my brother had his darkroom; the basement and its scary, rattling boiler. Someone painted the floors green, but the paint was worn off, and the yellow painted floor of my old room came raggedly through. After my brother's dog, Dodger, had died, we hung his collar on a peg by the basement. I was six. The pegs jutted out, bare.
This had been the world; I dug for dinosaurs in the back yard, sank ships in the tub, looked out the window to see fistfights, left impassioned letters to girls in my desk drawer. I had about ten hours to say hello and goodbye, before I had to return to Brooklyn and my tiny apartment.
Resting on the cot, I wanted to catalog the place, write down the quirks and edges, the angle of light in the morning, the smells.I had my notebook out, my pen ready--but I put both back into my bag. Let the place be someone else's home, let them buy its history and poke in its corners. I'm sentimental and bitter enough without another recording. Still, I walked from room to room, remembering what I could, opening and shutting the doors, revelling in the amount of unfilled space. I found a flashlight, always my favorite toy, in a closet. I usually found trouble for wasting batteries. I tore paper from my empty notebook and punched holes in it with the pen. Laying on the cot, looking up at the ceiling, I played a game I'd contrived when I was eight. By holding the paper over the flashlight, I could cast imaginary constellations on the ceiling, and make up the stories that went with them.