The trip from
to Stockton was not a scenic drive
at the best of times and these were not the best of times. These were worrying times. These were guilty times. These were times of leaving too late, causing
disappointment on arrival and leaving too early, with too much undone, causing
disappointment on departure.
Disappointment was a theme, along with the guilt and indecision. Redding
Leaving too late, leaving later than promised, or not promised, but mentioned as I’ll try to get away in the afternoon . . . leaving late had its advantages. It was dark at this time of year and you didn’t have to see the fields. If you spent the added time (time taken away from her, when she was in such pain) to get a book on CD from the library, you could listen to it as the car rumbled its way through the dark.
In the dark you didn’t see the dirt on the windshield and dashboard and hood. In the dark, the crack in the windshield didn’t show much, nor did the jumble that had accumulated in the passenger seat and on the floor and in the back of the van where the sleeping bags slumped in a pile.
In the dark the sound could be turned up to mask the engine noise and the vibration almost worked the joints enough to keep them from stiffening, at least in your hopes. Better to stop often and stretch and walk, despite the pain of the arthritis, but that would make her later, so maybe not.
The stories she chose were always filled with emotions and murders and of course that was to keep her interested and awake, even driving through the dark. At highway speeds small shifts of the arms and shoulders were all it took to make the curves or change lanes on Interstate 5. Shoulders and knees would be stiff tonight and stiffer tomorrow. Best not to think beyond that, right now. There was more sitting ahead and in less comfortable places than the padded driver’s seat of a better mini van than some people would ever be able to afford.
Engine noise and rumbling and swaying and the feel of going forward. Driving always felt like progress, even in the dark on what would be a long round trip over a long weekend. And she could have taken vacation time if she wanted. No one she was driving toward believed that she was leaving anything that couldn’t be left indefinitely but . . . better not think about that.
was tenser. You had to pay attention to
surrounding cars at all times, with further attention given to onramps. You couldn’t just set the cruise control,
driving through Sacramento . Sacramento
skyline changed. Recent buildings were
not just blocks of glass. There were obviously
creative changes in shape, so that no two buildings were alike in outline. Most lately, buildings had some sort of light
design on them. It would be interesting
to think about some time. Sacramento
Then off to Yolo and
seeming like rest stops, and Dunnigan, which was a cluster of cafes. There would be Williams and Willows and Zamora ,
which had tourist stops featuring the opportunity to buy olives near where they
were grown at no discount. Corning
Red Bluff was off to the side. That was where the surgery had been done, which was the start of all the driving. Then
, where there
were outlet stores that had nothing that she particularly wanted. Not wanting to shop was apparently a deformity
on her part. Then Redding, with the odd
streets that she still hadn’t gotten the hang of. Anderson
But that was later. Now was the spin of the tires and their contact with the asphalt or concrete of the highway, with the feel of their contact, their negotiation of forces coming up through the soles of her feet and the backs of her legs and, truth be told, through her rear end, pressed against the seat.
It was a separate movement from the hum and motion of the engine. The engine noise was a banking rumble. . . no, a hum. . . getting fainter all the time as she swayed along, the suspension rocking hammock-like. The trip was stressful, and the body was stiff and jangled, but the movement of the car was soothing on some level. It wasn’t quite relaxing. But it was hypnotic. The trip had been made often enough to be too familiar to catch the eye. You could enter that state that took you from home to work without any time seeming to pass, although the time sure went.
Not a purr. The van did not have enough soundproofing to turn the engine noise into a purr. But the van was wrapped around her, in the dark. She felt it without seeing it. She saw the lines on the road. She felt the movement. Heard the voices on the CD, felt the shock when a disc ended. As she fumbled to change discs, she wondered if she had heard all of the words or if she had zoned out and missed something important.
And the trip went on, dark and vibrating, surging and swaying. Better not to think of it.
James didn’t live with his mother. His mother lived with him. It was an important difference. The difference satisfied him. He had left home and fallen from the consideration of his mother and sisters. He had sent money. Never enough to satisfy them, but he had never expected to satisfy them.
Slowly, his sisters had moved out and come back, living with their mother. Children were added. Boyfriends and husbands were added and subtracted. The sisters slowly left again, going to second and third husbands or to paired women households where the men came and went.
Mother had lost the apartment and had looped through the lives of her daughters, with recriminations growing and her health fading. James would soon be fifty. He didn’t know how old his mother was. She didn’t like to say.
Last year, James had brought himself to his mother’s attention. He had taken her to Denny’s and paid for dinner and let her complain herself through a salad and a chicken fried steak and a slice of pie with coffee. Then he said, “Momma, I brought you here to say something.” And then he listened to her talk until she finally said. “Well, I’m not stopping you. Say whatever you’re going to.”
“Momma, I have a house, and I want you to know that I would be willing to let you live there, under certain conditions.”
“Conditions? You’d put your own momma under conditions?” James waited, sipping coffee, while her indignant and dissatisfied words slid over him. He didn’t look up from the cup.
Finally. “What conditions would you be putting on me.”
“Four things, huh? You have four things that are more important to you than I am?” She paused. He could tell she thought she had him there.
“First, if you move in, you stay. You’ve been bouncing in and out of the sister’s trailers and apartment and everything always gets roiled up. If you move in, you stay. If you move out, you won’t be moving in again.”
His eyes looked into hers, as his long, dark fingers brought the cup up for another sip. Her comment began. He waited politely, but only half listened. He had long ago decided that neither she nor any of his sisters chose their words with care. They flung them back and forth for effect, trying to force their will on anyone in the vicinity, largely without plan.
“Don’t you feel ashamed to be putting your own momma out in the street?”
“My house, my rules.”
“Your house, you say that like you own it.”
“Where would you have gotten a house.”
“If you don’t know, then you ain’t been payin’ attention.”
She huffed and glared at that.
“I don’t expect you’ll be wanting to move in any time soon. But there’s a room for you.
I know you don’t think much of me. You haven’t ever spent much thought on me. But there’s a room.”
“Where you get the money for a house.”
“From my job.”
She sank down into the booth, frowning, and fiddled with her plate. Then she picked up a fork and prodded at the crust left from her pie.
“What kind of job gives you enough money to just go out and buy a house.”
“You thinking of it wrong. You should be asking, what kind of job lets you save up for a house.”
“Save up!” the old woman snorted. “Save up and find trouble to take what you saved. Save up and watch everyone’s hand come out singing sad songs and making sad faces.” There was more. It was familiar. He knew she believed it all. He knew that, for her, it was true and would always be true.
“It’s not a big house or a new one. And it’s got a mortgage.”
“You gonna be forclose. You gonna be out on the street wishin you never put no condition on you momma.”
“That’s the first condition. If you move in, you stay. No moving in and out and making a fuss. I like my quiet.”
“You like your quiet! Huh!”
James lifted his cup to signal the waitress for a refill. She smiled and hurried over. The old woman glared at the girl silently through the process. James nodded thanks and added sugar. When she left the old woman began again.
“You think you a favorite customer or something? You just wait. Someone else come in, she ignore you.”
James stirred his coffee. He came in often enough to be considered a regular. He was quiet and polite and tipped well enough. He knew most of the staff by name and knew he’d be treated well. He mentioned none of this. It would just bring up another set piece.
“Well, what you other Conditions?”
“Two, you will be the only person to live there. Just you. None of my sisters. None of their children. No mens, no friends with troubles. Just you.”
“Well, you don’t half think you’re something! You want to cut me off from everybody. That’s cruelty, that is. You should be ashame.” The words went on and on. James drank his coffee, seeming satisfied.
“Well? Ain’t you ashame?”
“You can have visitors and you can go visit. But no one but you stays after ten. First time someone stays, I’ll ask you to leave.”
“Oh, you’ll ask.”
“I will ask and it will happen. I’ve been working for the City as a Security Guard for a long time. I know the police and I’ve discussed my rights in this matter.
My house, my rules.”
“You call the cops on your momma!?” The words came thick, fast, and indignant. James noticed the other customers reacting, but stayed calm. He guessed that the staff would just watch, unless things went on too long or got more heated.
Eventually, she ran down. She grabbed her glass and drank, as if accusing him of having run her dry.
“One, if you move in you stay – no moving in and out.
Two, only you move in. Guests leave by ten.
Three, you give me half of your social security to cover your food and utilities.”
“You charging me rent? You have a job that gets you a house and you charging you own momma rent?” The words were now comfortably abusive. James colored, but his movements did not change, and the blush was not evident to anyone at the other tables, especially the white folks.
“I don’t have a house because I have a lot of money. I have a house because I manage my money properly. I know what my . . “
Now his momma got abusive. The cursing didn’t stay on point, but ranged widely. James rose to go, leaving the tip he had planned and turning toward the cashier to pay. His momma’s hands grabbed the tip.
“You leaving too much.” She began to school him, scornfully telling him was a fool if he thought that he could buy the regard of waitresses who hated his black ass.
“Momma.” James barked out from clenched teeth.
She looked up, startled to see hate in his eyes.
“If you steal from me again I will call the police and I will prosecute.”
Now she blushed, and she was light enough that it showed. It didn’t stop her tongue, but he spoke over it.
“Drop it. You will not steal from me ever again.”
She gave up trying to figure what a proper tip would be and threw the money at the plates. She stalked out with her head high, muttering. He walked stiffly to the cashier and found no line. The girl looked sympathetic as she rang him out. His face was stiff, but he nodded, acknowledging that the fuss had been unfortunate and that he appreciated everyone’s forbearance.
He took his time pocketing his change and walking out the door. He used the time to calm himself. By the time he got out to the car, he was able to be faintly amused by his mother going around his car, trying each of the door handles and hitting the car when none of them worked.
He said nothing. He let her go on, as expected, about the stupidity of locking a car up, while he let her in, paying nearly no attention as he entered the car, checked the mirrors, started the car, checked the gauges, checked over his shoulder for movement in the parking lot, then engaged the engine and drove away.
He couldn’t have said what she was talking about on the drive back to his sister, Luwanda’s trailer. He had no idea what his sister’s relationship was to the trailer or to any of the people in it and he didn’t care.
He stopped the car across the trailer’s driveway and put the car into park without turning it off. He cut across whatever she was saying to state: “If you want to know what the fourth condition is, you can call my cell phone.”
“What?” his mother had been deep into her own conversation and was momentarily nonplussed. He spoke into the gap before it could close.
“If you want to know what the fourth condition is, you can call my cell phone,” he said, handing her his City business card. The card had been prepared ahead of time and had his personal cell phone written on the back. It was a calculated risk, giving her his work numbers. She could cause him any amount of embarrassment with those. But he had a suspicion that he was safe.
“Well why don’t you just tell me now?”
Because you wouldn’t have been ready to listen to it before I contraried you into it, he thought, while what he said was:
“Condition One, if you move in you stay – no moving in and out.
Condition Two, only you move in. Guests leave by ten. I don’t care who out of work or thrown out of they home.
Condition Three, you give me half of your social security to cover your food and utilities. You keep the rest and we both know that more than you usually get to keep if you livin with a sister.”
Momma huffed, but was caught crosswise between complaining about him going over the conditions like she was too stupid to remember them and complaining about his sisters and their hands out.
“Condition Four, no church people over for no meetings. One or two is fine, but no meetings. No matter how they say that no one else has the room. No church meetings.”
Momma’s mouth dropped open at that. Then the complaints of opportunity got lined up in her head and she commenced to yelling. “Was he stupid?” was how it started, and “didn’t he have eyes?”, she was ashame that her son knew so little of her that he thought she even went to church, let alone had church meetings.
“You don’t now, but you will. By the time you get around to moving in, you will.”
That derailed her again. Her mouth gaped a few times on quiet air, then she scrabbled at the car door, threw herself out, and slammed it behind her. She took a big breath and started telling him. He drove away without looking back, which changed the topic again, but did not change the volume or most of the words being used.
James watched in the rear view mirror as he drove carefully away. He nodded in satisfaction when he saw her rip his business card into tiny pieces and throw the pieces onto the street. It had been a risk, but he was safe. He felt better now that the offer had been made. He’d been thinking about it for a long time. She wasn’t anywhere near ready to move in, but she’d remember this. If she ever shifted the way he was expecting her to shift, she’d remember. The idea of living with him was now tied to the idea of church. And if he was wrong, and she never shifted, then she knew that she could never move in on him.
That had been eight years ago. It had been four years since Momma had gone through the change. She had found Jesus and if her children could just fine Jesus like she did, then the turmoil in their lives would cease.
“Like oil on water.” she would say. “Like oil on water.”
It had been nearly two years after that that she’d demanded to move in with James, though he had turned the demand into a protracted negotiation. The triggering event had happened one night when an unappreciative granddaughter had filled a blender with water, poured oil over the top, then turned it on without a lid.
“Like oil on water, old woman. How you like that?” she had said as she grabbed her backpack and walked her ungrateful wiggling fanny out of the door.
So James’ mother lived with him. She provided a constant commentary in the background of his life. He had learned something. Since she moved in, he no longer left the television on in the background. It had taken him awhile to notice it. Odd, that. He enjoyed the quiet at work, but at home, he needed the noise to ignore.
It’s amazing what people will take, hoping to get high. Jayjay, for instance was a moderately homeless women, nearing middle age, who raided residential recycling bins in the middle of the night before trash day. That is, she did that if she was feeling pretty well. If her joints or stomach were acting up, she’d cruise certain abandoned buildings and under certain bridges, swapping blow jobs for drugs directly.
But she had been feeling pretty good, and had done her rounds with a shopping cart. Recycling money usually went for straight booze. That was easiest, most days. Mind you, that only worked if you had your head together enough to remember what day of the week it was and which parts of town would be putting their trash out.
If you were out of it, you’d have to ramble and look for the bins, which was difficult to do if you were out of it. You never knew if you’d been going in circles. If you were out of it, putting out was better. Less hassle.
Today, luckily, she had had her head together and had noticed prescription bottles in a couple of the trash bins on the route. It was one of the fancy areas where everyone parked their cars in the garages and there were only the bins on the street, each bin carefully placed at least three feet from any other bin.
There had also been a couple of whiskey bottles that weren’t completely empty. Well, maybe not whiskey. Something that looked pale under halogen streetlights, anyway. Anyway, it gave her something to take the pills with.
She threw away the pill bottles, cause you couldn’t get any money for recycling them. They rattled against the asphalt. She kept the glass bottles. Even if she hadn’t wanted them, she knew not to throw them. She remembered that the sound of shattering glass could cause rezzy-dents to call the cops. She didn’t want that. She kept quiet and kept to her route.
Later, when she felt too bad to walk, she lay down in the center of the street. You can’t miss someone laying in the center of the street, right? Not like you can miss them laying other places. Get right in the center where they can’t ignore you or go around you.
Unfortunately, it was a nice neighborhood. There was no one out and about until the dark before the dawn, when the garbage trucks started through. She was unconscious by then. She might have been pleased that the drivers recognized her. They recognized her as someone not to touch, though, and called 911 without getting out of the truck. They warned the operator that she might be drunk or high, and that she might have a knife and a high degree of startled belligerence. That slowed things down a little, but not much. She was completely unconscious and offered no resistance as she was strapped into the gurney and folded into the ambulance.