The mother and daughter are sitting in the darkened theater, the blue light of madness around them. They are watching a horror movie. Blood-curdling cries escape from the monster faces, a good makeup job. The opening scene is always the same–perfect–all-American, someone mowing the lawn or sunbathing in the backyard–till something sinister happens. When the music quickens like thunder, the mother knows to close her eyes and look away.
The mother and daughter are sitting in the third row. Sunk low, the girl is no longer a girl though she is still her mother’s daughter. Child-like, round-eyed, full of belief, at thirty-six she throws back her head and laughs into her hands as the neck of an innocent teenager is chopped in two with an axe by the grizzled monster. Red blood balloons out, and she laughs harder, showing the wide gaps between her yellowed teeth. Her face looks pointed and pinched in the shadow light of the theatre.
Once a year when the mother makes the trip from California to Boston to visit her daughter, this is what they do. They shop and eat and go to horror movies. The movies make the mother sick. At sixty-five, white-haired, stooped, in her coordinated pastel suit, she would rather be home wearing a slip watching The Price is Right. When the daughter is not looking, she squints into the darkened audience feeling almost invisible–a small white light, a tiny thing.
The Beacon Theatre is close to the girl’s rooming house on Myrtle Street. Past the gold domed State House, throne of the governor, and up the tattered, brick hill, wrought iron hitching posts still mark the days when patriots on horseback rode these narrow cobblestone streets.
Number forty five is an aging, gray, stucco eye sore, lopsided slightly, shifting to the left. Crude windows peeled back like lidless eyes slash the façade in a cartoonish way. The two small shallow steps are crumbling. When Mass Mental shut down several years ago, turning mad men out into the streets and foisting social security checks like a winning deck of cards, the landlords had no choice but to take them. It drives the rich neighboring Boston Brahmins crazy.
Earlier that day before lunch and the movie, the mother met the girl at the appointed time arranged through an exchange of letters weeks before. The girl has no phone, is iffy about keeping time. Keeps a pocket notebook for recording facts with triple underlines and exclamation points.
Twelve years ago the travel agent in San Diego took one look at the mother and sized up her nervousness and good grooming, found her a Victorian rooming house on nearby Beacon Street where she could rent a room annually. It was a shot in the dark, but not far from Boston Common and the Public gardens, with its swan boats and colorful walkways, runners digitized over careening paths in and out of urban corridors. That first year she’d come the girl was fresh out of the hospital, homeless and staying at the Pine Street Inn where it converged near I-93 and the Mass Pike at an intersection that came to a halt like the end of the world.
The mother and daughter walked the streets of Beacon Hill together looking at rooming houses. On Bowdoin Street and several other tenements nearby, derelicts were collapsed in hallways, and AIDS patients came to the end of the line. By the time they came to #45 with its crooked Rooms for Rent sign taped on the door with gray electrician’s tape, the mother was so desperate to cut a deal she paid the manager six months rent in advance in cash.
Now dank and cold and rainy in February, she walks east past the Public Gardens, and continues up the hill with a heavy heart but a feeling of familiarity. The once white swan boats have been put to rest for the winter, she can see their bulky shapes outlined under the striped red and white canvas canopy huddled along the shore, wings bundled down for what remains of the cold.
Signs of an early spring hover in the upper stirring greenery of sweeping willows and tightly budded pink magnolias. The mother looks up and sees dark cumulous clouds carousing in the distance. Here and there the pale green tops of an early crocus break through the earth like baby teeth, chiseling through the thin crusty dirt. In southern California the climate is so good she only needs to throw seeds out the window to have them take root and find bushels of basil and parsley in a matter of weeks.
She bites her lip and thinks how Boston is the birthplace of independence and American history. The girl’s overdoses nearly completely robbed her of her personal history, her memory moves in and out like a windblown candle. Burned out schizophrenic–the doctors said.
The foolish daughter still thinks she pays her way on meager SSI benefits of $450 a month. The joke’s on her, the mother thinks. The girl still believes it’s 1970 and walks her $30 a week in cash to the manager’s door. It gives her a bite of integrity to pay her way.
#45 is exactly the same as nearly twelve years before, but a little more broken. The mother stops to blow her nose with a tissue and sees a thin gray spackle of pigeon droppings plastering the concrete sidewalk at her feet. A trash can overflows in the alleyway. How can people live so inhumanly close together, the mother thinks, eyeing the caliper-width of space that separates one building from the next. You could spit right across into your neighbor’s window.
She rings the ochre bell and waits. Soon the shade shifts and relaxes. The door opens a crack and the mother sighs, thinking how as of now the horror movie may as well have already started. The manager is a short disheveled man named Ed Maple. His white T-shirt is badly stained in several places and his pants are accordion pleated with fine lines running sideways from navel to crotch.
He is jowly and bug-eyed and happy to see her. She steps back slightly, smiles, bracing herself. His head tilts a little sideways, where the cigar skunks his face, and a two-day beard shadows the rest of him.
“Hey there, Mrs. Green,” he says, smiling, “Nice to see you again. Must be that time of year.”
“You, too,” she says, her voice inexplicably husky, barely stepping inside the familiar hallway, where the threadbare carpet is spread out like grains of wheat on a dusky field. The room sways with the smell of old scotch and lingering moisture and a hint of death sandwiched in between the rafters, the darkly paneled floorboards overloaded with chipped metal ashtrays and faded newspapers. Behind the desk she sees the same blue cardigan sweater buttered thinly into the back of the upholstered desk chair, against the wall by the window an old RCA TV sits on brass stilts, the remote huge and ancient.
“I always remember you,” Ed Maple says to her now with muted excitement, “see, because your name’s Green, green like money,” he says, his eyes shifting with anticipation. “I have to admit I like a little money.” He unfolds a wrinkled dollar bill from his pocket.
“Nice to see you, too,” she blurts. “How’ve you been?” He doesn’t hear well, so she leans forward a little, says it louder. “How’ve you been?”
“Green like money,” I always say, he continues mumbling absentmindedly, fingering his stainless dog tags. “Heh, heh.” He shakes his head at his own good humor then closes the door behind her as she stands in the shadows of the foyer. Water drops pout on the tips of her shoes, her cheeks are flushed, but she’s warming a little.
“Easy to remember,” he repeats glancing at her up and down slowly. “Like I say, always a lady. Nice to see you.”
She is aware of her bowels, tight and recoiling. Her olive canvas Burberry raincoat is crisp and predictable and holds its shape. Her black leather bag is arched over her right shoulder like a dead, defeated bird.
“Don’t know if she’s up there now,” he says gazing toward the second floor landing.
“Keeps her own hours like the rest of them. They keep their own clock, the bunch of ‘em,’” he says waving the back of his hand towards the ceiling. “Sleep all day. No need to work. It’s the good life, I tell ya.”
She smiles and agrees, every year this trip gets harder. “No doubt,” she nods. “They have the life, don’t they?”
She turns and prepares to take the stairs but stops. A cardboard sign hangs crookedly across the banister on a tattered rope of sailcloth, blocking the way, the words: No Access.
Ed Maple follows her gaze, quickly corrects things.
“Stairs need some work, but I’ll get to it,” he says shuffling forward. “The lift’s working good. Here ya go, m’am, I’ll get ya right up there.”
Every month she mails the rent check two weeks early on the 15th like blood money. If not for her, the girl would be living on the street or dead. When we give birth to a child, are they ours forever? That is the question that haunts her daily since the girl began to have problems at first in junior high school, and then in college. Where does the responsibility stop?
“Not too much rain now, is it?” he asks, eyeing her loosened umbrella. “Maybe better in a day or so.”
Ed Maple moves even slower than last time. She looks down to see something thickened in his right foot, the bulbous black shoe swollen at the tip with an inset porous membrane.
She smiles, “I tried to bring a little California weather with me, but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.”
“Let’s go up and have a look. Can’t say I’ve seen her yet today. She’s got her habits. Smoking’s a big one,” he says looking back over his shoulder. “I keep warning her about the fire code, but she doesn’t listen.”
She steps into the shadow of the lift within an inch of him. A little bit of Times Square rots in the corner, where filth and spit have been culturing for years. The lift comes to a halt on the third floor and her heart drops. Her eyeballs burn right down to her intestines where nothing settles right anymore.
Every year she used to pack a box of All Bran in her suitcase until the terrorists ruined all that and forced the airline rules to change. She has become more frail than she would like to admit. When she was young she was athletic and swam the Perth Amboy River near her house in New Jersey every weekend in the summer, diving confidently into the silence that briefly separated light and dark, a feeling that she would later think of as happy.
Years later she would realize that her downfall was her men or her vanity or both. She had a good hand for drawing, and following high school, had two years in art school. Like her daughter, the former art student, before she flunked out. After the divorce when the girl was two, the mother got a part-time job drawing fashion illustrations for the local newspaper. Women in Bali bras and Vanity Fair slips. Nipples ignored, crotches whited out, in plain sight of legitimate stories about politics and murder.
When the girl’s father left them, she went home to her parents’ house to live in shame. But when she met Leo Branford when she was thirty two and the girl was five, he took her away from all of that.
To afford the girl’s rent, the mother works part-time at T J Maxx in the mall at Fashion Valley. Makes secret deposits in the account for her daughter. Otherwise, everything else with her husband is share and share alike. When the computerized cash registers were brought in fifteen years ago, it almost finished her. But she eventually learned.
In the early years, she and the girl used to meet at the Park Street Church on Tremont Street across from the theatre beneath the forged steaming teapot of the Mug and Muffin. More and more the girl didn’t show and the mother would have to walk the streets looking for her in the unfamiliar territory of rotted-out office buildings and colonial scrollwork, green with verdigris, past Woolworth’s, K mart, the old Filene’s Basement. The dark downtown of evening along Tremont Street stirred her with furtive sketchy thoughts of Paul Revere’s Ride and the Boston Tea Party giving her chills, and when she realized she had stumbled upon the Freedom Trail it emphasized the sense she had of being on a secret mission. And just when she reached a point of despair and thought she’d be heading home prematurely to California, she’d find the girl sitting nonchalantly on a stool at Brigham’s or Burger King with a cup of coffee in one gloved hand and having no recollection they were slated to meet.
What she cannot forgive is this: the betrayal of her second husband Leo with her daughter—no matter how erratic the girl’s behavior had been. It was the summer the mother turned forty. They were living in Trenton, New Jersey, on High Street, a stone’s throw from downtown, amidst a corrugated row of Civil War era brick houses now inhabited by retired doctors who still saw a few ancient patients on the side. Her new husband Leo had been kind to the daughter, but distant. A retired podiatrist, he still treated bunions on the gnarled feet of patients in their 80s in the tiny home office attached to the side of the house, with his tarnished tool kit left over from his army training at Fort Dix.
The girl was nineteen and striking, arousing a kind of silken rush to the top of the head made possible by her extraordinary likeness to Julie Christie in her portrayal of Lara in Dr. Zhivago. She had spent the past year as an art student at Boston University, where unbeknownst to them she had failed to complete her freshman year. Despite her growing illness, or maybe because of it, she had decided to come home on the train for what appeared to be no reason at all–not having seen them for the better part of a year.
It was an ungodly hot August morning–8 o’clock and already seventy-two degrees–as the mother walked the few blocks down the asphalt stretch of Crusoe Avenue in the direction of Store 24 for a gallon of milk. The sky was crimped peach at the edges, its center softly crinolined white with dissolving cirrus. The mother had woken early and gone out wearing only a white tank top and frayed blue jean shorts, her athletic arms swinging. The world was quiet and she was lost in thought, scanning the tops of distant buildings. Of all things, she had baked chocolate chip cupcakes that morning in her daughter’s honor. They were cooling now and would soon be ready to frost.
At nineteen the girl still had her life ahead of her–though she had gotten too thin lately, thin as a piece of paper. The mother’s armpits were stippled with sweat as she rounded the bend toward home and started up the slate walk. She turned the key, and found them groping each other awkwardly on the living room floor. The carton of milk slipped from her hands, unleashing a flood of whiteness. Her husband was on his knees. She looked down at the bald pink top of his head, saw the raucous glazed eyes, and eroding penis–while he let his hand weakly separate from her daughter’s naked breast.
She stood there for a minute unable to think. Red heat crept up the back of her neck, crowding her brain, making her speechless.
“It was all her,” the husband said pathetically. “Look at her eyes, just ask her. She’s high on something.” His legs were twisted under him as he struggled to get up. She watched him hoist his pants so haphazardly high above his waist she could see the pathetic bony space between where his socks ended and his weak shins began.
“You’re a lousy son of a bitch is what you are,” the mother said, “the lowest kind.” She moved to occupy the space between the two of them. “Do you really think she’d have any reason to get with an old fool like you? Don’t even try to say she came onto you. You’re the one, you started it.”
Meanwhile, the girl high on heroin, availed herself of a rusty hammer from the ancient toolbox shelved in the hall closet, and started hacking holes in the plaster walls. The convenience of a Section 8 wielded by two huge policemen and a straitjacket landed her in the state mental hospital for eight days of observation.
The mother visited her in the hospital just once in the eight days, but it was all she could stand to feel gray upon gray in a funnel of blackness.
When the girl was released she fled back to her Allston apartment on Brainerd Road where the bills were piling up, and the letter from school said she was past probation. She kept a cold-blooded python in a glass tank and a Doberman Pincer for safety. Daily menacing thoughts pelted her like bright glassy pieces of broken moonbeam. She couldn’t explain her inability to concentrate, how lines moved in waves. Before she downed that fateful load of pills that would slow her heart, she had the good sense to relinquish the snake onto the fire escape, letting it slither into the urban landscape as easily as a giant earthworm.
Three suicide attempts followed over a year and a half, the final one came with a phone call to the mother from a bleak, overpopulated emergency room at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Under the thin gray lights, the doctor saying in fits and starts into the phone line that the girl had overdosed on barbiturates and wasn’t going to make it. But miraculously, after two days, she opened her eyes. When she left the hospital all her vital signs were evident, but no one saw that her soul was missing.
The lift comes to a halt with a final wheeze and Ed Maple shifts the lever to brace it. There’s a moment that’s too long in which he doesn’t let the mother out, his thick wrist rises in slow motion towards her arm as if about to touch her, and she lets go a sneeze, extinguishing the moment. Then he sighs, and resumes the joystick, releasing her into the hallway through a grid of wrought iron diamonds.
The hallway is dark and coarse with hazy dust particles. The wallpaper smirks with crushed red roses. She knocks on the door, the girl answers slowly, opening it a crack, fakes a smile. Then silently nods her woolen mannish head, the ribbed black Seaman’s cap ticked over on its side like the inked upper stroke of an exclamation mark.
The mother moves into the goal post of the doorframe, but doesn’t cross the threshold. The tiny room is 6’ by 8’, one window fitted with vellum shades, a twin bed, a desk, a three-legged chair.
She has rehearsed the words, however simple.
“Ready, dear?” She asks. “Rachel?”
The same name embroidered on the girl’s baby pillow, the name on the cross-stitch sampler with pink rocking horses and yellow ducks folded neatly into a box at the back of the closet. A name that is the color of peaches and sunlight and optimism, and that name breaks her heart.
“The movie’s at 2:15. If we hurry we can make it.”
“A minute,” the girl grunts, “I need a minute.”
She moves back into the darker recesses of the room, reaching for her gold vinyl bag from the bottom drawer of the oak desk where she keeps her keys and Tampax. In the better lit areas of the room the mother sees a lifetime supply of toilet paper safely lined up in a torrent of white CVS bags. A tiny plastic flower floats in a paper cup. Pink jelly beans, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Hersey’s kisses, a red paper umbrella left over from a tropical drink from their last visit.
“Looks like you’ve got enough food for a party,” the mother jokes.
But the girl gazes back scornfully and says between clenched teeth, “I have to budget.”
In the high school yearbook there was a whole page in black and white devoted to the girl’s exquisite profile. So this is what’s left of her, the mother thinks, of perfection oval as an egg. Beauty in and of its self is powerless. It’s what we want it to be that ruins everything.
“Ready, dear?” the mother asks.
“Here, take the stairs,” Ed Maple says, still hovering in the hallway. “It’s OK, I’ll watch you,” he says leading the way. “Use the rail.”
He forges ahead of them, stands waiting downstairs in the hallway. “I think one more trip on those stairs will be OK,” he repeats. “I think you girls can make it.”
They side-step down the stairs easily, the girl trailing slowly in size twelve combat boots, taking the steps sideways, one at a time.
“See you then,” the mother nods to him, taking charge of their exit. “Thanks again, thanks for everything.”
They walk side by side down Park Street toward the theatre where the marquee flashes unevenly in neon lights. A burst of warm moist air blasts them inside the lobby as they buy two tickets, a bucket of buttered popcorn, and some nearly fluorescent pink cotton candy that the girl holds in front of her face, sniffing it like a bouquet of flowers. They’ve come to the matinee on a Wednesday, and the audience is thin. Wads of gum scribble the floor in sodden pods and a vague smell of pot smoke and urine glances up between the seats. The movie she has chosen is like all the rest, but this one, Sudden Scream, at least tells the truth.
They find two good seats in the third row. A squat, fat man snores two rows to their left, slumped like a sack of potatoes in a big shaggy coat. Periodically, M&Ms come rolling beneath their feet, Mars Bar wrappers, malt balls, empty Dr. Pepper bottles, Coke. Kids playing hooky from the nearby high school. The mother watches the zig-zag trajectory of a heavy-set man with a combined smell of urine, cigar smoke, and sweat–changing seats rapidly to sit next to women who are alone. One by one the women glance sideward, notice him, move.
We don’t have to worry though, the mother thinks. The daughter is scary looking on her own. Against the downtown’s urban gray streets, from a distance, she is a dark shadow against the earth, a slow-moving dinosaur in oversized clothes, a small wool cap like a thimble sucked over her skull. Close up, the daughter’s face looks more exotic than alien. You can look at it for a while the way you might look at an abstract painting or an obliquely shaped object, in that the emotions are hard to place–the subtle rise of the cheek bones, the eyes that constantly move.
To the mother, it seems the girl was born a miniature adult, her personality set. A little girl wasn’t supposed to be like this. A little girl was supposed to bring joy. But the girl was bad luck from the start and created enough interference between the mother and her already unsteady husband that it sucked the life out of them both and her husband took off. The mother was twenty-four.
They had been forced to move back in with her parents in Perth Amboy. All day instead of being out looking for a job, she lounged on the brick fire escape smoking cigarette after cigarette, unable to change a diaper or lift a comb to her child’s white blonde hair. Now, the mother thinks, sitting in the movie theatre, bracing herself for violence, the daughter is paying her back for those early years. But how could she remember, how could she know?
By high school the word was out. There were mandatory weekly trips to the school psychologist and the truant officer. But then finally, miraculously, she had made it through high school and had been awarded a partial art scholarship to college. Soon after, the mother and her new husband made the move from New Jersey to San Diego to start over.
Now the only things the daughter really responds to are horror movies and Mother Nature. Murder and Bambi. It’s pretty close. She likes ducks swimming on the big Public Garden lake, and the look of crows atop trees in the distance, darkly punctuating the landscape. She is fascinated by cemeteries, how snow covers objects, revealing new shapes. In each restaurant she orders the most exotic: mahi-mahi, shark, Dom Perignon for the sound of it. Rich rum-filled coffees. The cherry-liqueur in cakes she doesn’t need. Black tea only, not English Breakfast. The mother would never order these things for herself, but for her daughter, with whom she cannot speak and doesn’t understand, she will buy anything.
At first, in the early years, the mother’s trips across the country were like Shackleton’s daring trips to explore the bottom of the earth, full of hope and possibility. But gradually it sunk in that the present was the future and nothing would change.
They will spend four days together like this, the mother leaving the ramshackle New England rooming house downtown precisely at nine, meeting her daughter in the rain, in the snow, with poker faces and no talk of love. The days go fast and perplex them both. The daughter has mind-slips, she forgets. She is dazed and excited when she erupts with sudden intimacy, “The earth is the earth.”
At the end of each encounter when it’s time to go home she does not like to say goodbye. She holds out her cheek to be kissed and fights a smile, says, “Don’t get too close, Vera,” as the mother tries to hug her.
Now someone lets out a scream in the back of the audience and the mother looks up at the screen to see someone’s guts being scooped out with a spoon, someone’s face being blown off with a shotgun. The monster is really a college student run amok. He seeks revenge on his blonde girlfriend who left him for his best friend, a star basketball player.
The mother looks over at the daughter who is thoroughly enjoying herself. No piece of cake, no rum punch could have given her this. Her attention is fixed on the screen and her eyes are wide open. Horror movies like this didn’t exist when the mother was a child, there was Lon Cheney and Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, but the special effects were clumsy and visible.
Now the police are bringing in the new boyfriend as a suspect. It is obviously a case of mistaken identity. He was framed by the real monster who left incriminating evidence in his apartment. The police need a suspect because the public is getting mean. They need a murderer. The close-up shows his earnest face, eyes full of truth, mouth chiseled with sincerity.
In the dim light of the theatre the mother sees her own face as huge, monstrous, a pattern of features big as the sky, strangely unchanged over the years.
This is her one heroic act in life, her claim to the word “mother.” Her husband hates it when she leaves because he resents having to eat a plate of pea soup alone. If she were home she would begin to cook supper, the house would be clean, his socks and underwear put away in drawers, flowers on the table. She wonders if he cheats on his diet. They are both watching their cholesterol. Each night she is away he calls her at the guesthouse where she sleeps, and she stands leaning against a Shaker table in the darkened hallway while everyone else is nearly asleep as he talks dirty to her.
Her heart stirs feelings separate from love. She doesn’t believe in love anymore. Now when they have sex, the mother pretends they are actors. She is Lauren Bacall or Ava Gardner.
In the dim blue light, the daughter opens her bag and unrolls several squares of toilet paper to blow her nose. Her eyes dance in the dark light of the theatre. She likes this murder, this mayhem, better than anything.
Thunder crashes in the on-screen sky and the bludgeoning continues. Teenage lust is becoming deadly. Already half the high school has died. As the onscreen violence continues, the mother suddenly feels sympathy for the monster. There is no love in his heart. He is driven by jealousy, by fear, by what has been taken away. And she realizes that they have something in common.
The usher is combing the aisles, flashing a torch in each person’s eyes. One of the women must have complained about the man playing musical chairs.
The movie is coming to an end. The mother looks over at her daughter who is rapt-eyed, snickering in the dark.
Her heart chills. In the blackness finally, the mother gives in and closes her eyes, trying to feel death inside her. Her fists are clenched with what she doesn’t understand. She is wishing herself gone. This is her way of loving her daughter.