bart plantenga
Mom’s Visit to the East Village

My neighbour’s head comes crashing through her bedroom window. The sound of breaking glass echoes in the airshaft. She’s old and her son, the perp, is less old. This is how I’m awakened the morning after the party that ended badly.
      The cupboards are bare. It’s a song. Can you add coffee creamer to stale Saltines and call it breakfast cereal? I’m at the kitchen table and think: This is the future. Nothing matters as I spot a yellowed sheet of onionskin typing paper on the floor, shoved under the front door. The typed letter is from neighbour Pasha Georg.

            Radio Transmitter — READ ACROSS YOURE “AIR” WAVES — URGENT!
            “DEAR” Populace:
            I live in a “semi-industrialised” area, and cannot put up with “baboOons”, that continually hairass
            “my person”, sending interstellar voices into my oven, a known reciever of signals. It seems they
            arrest “these People”, and let them out on “Bail”(?) Then, these individuals come back and
            “engage” me in mortal duels to challenge “ME” with their “swords” of broken off airials from
            “automobiles” and “supercede” even F.B. of I. requests, to keep away from “certain areas” whare I
            “conduct” my own “personal affairs”. P.S. “I” have been struck with a “snowball” saved as evidence
            in freezer
      I will not respond but he’ll not take my nonresponse lying down.
      My mom arrives on time like always; she will be punctual for her own funeral. Actually, she’s early. This way she can catch me off-balance, not quite done washing dishes, shoving clothes in the closet. But Eunice takes a kinder view. She’s on the phone just in case. Figures mom is probably just anxious to see me.
      I take mom’s gabardine coat, that she’s been wearing for over 30 years, so old it’s new and chic again. I fold it on my bed, fetch her a glass of water. She inspects the water, holding the glass up to the light. I notice she has already somehow managed to refold her coat into a perfect square.
      ‘You need a fEElter for your New York vAAter.’ She sits very still on the edge of the chair, trying to make sense of her surroundings.
      ‘New York’s famous for its good water. It’s from Upstate,’ I mumble what every New Yorker says every day the issue of water comes up. I don’t believe it but say it anyway. [Analyses show traces of pain relievers, barbs, antibiotics, and opiates.]
      ‘Through dose rusting pipes, ja.’ Mom is appalled by things in every corner. To her it’s like a hornet’s nest in a hurricane. She gets up to re-fill her glass but first washes it thoroughly along with some other unwashed glasses and silverware.
      ‘Dis place is filt’y. Is not your girl friend…’
      ‘Leave it…and she’s not my girl friend.’
      ‘Is she not taking care of you? Maybe you need a cleaner…Maybe I can…’
      ‘Mom, I’m OK.’
      She sits back down, now in the living room. That same look of injured bewilderment a mother who comes to visit her convict son in Sing Sing might wear. Tears well up—those rain-pouring-down-a-cold-dark-window eyes. On top of the kitchen cabinets, still in its box, she spots the pizzamaker she’d given me two Christmases ago.
      ‘Do you like your pizzamaker?’
      ‘Love it.’ A constructive lie is really a truth wrapped in loftier goals.
      ‘It is very handy for your fast living.’
      She gets up to straighten some things. Dusts off her stiff Sears dress that may be made of a material related to Teflon. She runs her fingers along a shelf. Lifts a souvenir, a brass cannon from Fort Ticonderoga covered in dust. Too much dust. I watch her ingrained habits convert compulsive energy into something useful like when she used to clean school cafeterias after lunch for a pittance above minimum wage.
      I remember: Take another multivitamin—replenishment of B and C vitamins can help purge remaining toxins. I reach for the bottle.
      ‘You takink pills for what now?’
      ‘Mom, sit down. It’s a multi-vitamin, for my health.’
      ‘You look daam overtired.’
      ‘Workin’ hard. And don’t worry about me and the dishes. Leave them!’ She sits back down, grabs the glass with two hands and holds it there on her knees.
      ‘You wass one time such a sVeet boy…’ The phone rings. I let it ring. The answering machine engages and we listen together: ‘I heard it, I heard it, my best favourite death-bed music! It’ll lend drama to the earth being tossed on top my casket — the music of Hildegard von Bingen. It will give my funeral the weight of ethereality…’
      Elsa Triolet, being a trained Catholic, likes leaving confessional-length messages. The relationship of answering machine to human made it easier for her to come clean: ‘Like an angel with dirt on her knees is how she sings…I mean she gave light a celestial sound but also made light feminine—you know exactly what I mean. I hope you’re not screening your calls, you naughty boy—sorry to bug you—it’s only that I’m preparing for the most important event in my life and I wanna get this one right. Come over! I have special beer from Belgium, aged in barrels of uncoated Ardennes oak. I also have another treat. It’s something you will… well, I pierced my clit with a bell so now every time you—you know—you’ll ring my beeell.’ Her Anita Ward imitation trailing off into nothingness…BEEEEEEEEP.
      ‘Daat is a strange vooman. Does not your Joana mind?’
      ‘Does not this Joana mind?’
      ‘DJUUNA! She’s just my roommate.’
      ‘It is strange I did not raise you so.’
      ‘What? To have roommates? Look mom, in a strange weird world, normal is what’s strange, people who act normal and find things normal THAT’s fohking weird.’
      ‘You are so angry and vloekt zo as if I bring you here to force to live—do not vipe your hands on your nice pants.’
      ‘Vot happen to those nice pants I buy you?’
      ‘I wear’m to work.’
      ‘There is maybe too many drOgs by you. I raise you … You waaeere alvays a nice boy. You never did cry or complain about TSIngs. So many sVeet TSIngs you do for me. You vood nap met your big smile on my laap. And daan you vood bring me some buttercups from de veld.’ I worry about roaches suddenly emerging from the cracks in the wood paneling, tapping her on the shoulder.
      ‘I had four perfect-attendance awards in school.’
      ‘Yes, I did teach you vell to be on time. Vot hAAppen met now?’
      ‘Oh come on.’ I remember the way she’d lick the corner of her hankie, get on one knee and wipe the corner of my mouth before school. I remember the cheap perfume mixed with a damp rag smell.
      ‘I haff still dee photo off you ven you waaeere duh crossing guard met your white strap on. I haff dat photo met me.’ She pulled out a tattered manila envelope and showed me the creased and cracking photo. Yes indeed, there I stood stiff as a plank of wood, proud to be anointed guardian of safety. ‘A vimpering baby I bring up. warm clotheds, food and fresh melk. I give you a warm home together wid your vader. And now you roam in de wereld and I am home in my all alone self. I worry myself out.’
      Should I bring out some snacks? Crackers? Photos that may depict me in normal surroundings? My Foot Messenger of the Month awards?
      ‘And now maybe together we make this place clean. Make it a little nicer to sit.’ I remember that long ago when a word was spoken I believed that word. That word meant exactly what it was supposed to. So long ago. I remember, wanting to sleep in and she’d punish me for my late night revelery with ‘daat whore’ by vacuuming very early in the morning, the vacuum bang-banging against my bedroom door. Making sure I knew she was at 5:30 AM—every morning. As if moral superiority hinged on the facts that she was an early riser and an advocate for cleanliness and punctuality. Blame it on dour Calvin, Christian reformer who my mom, an atheist, no doubt agreed with him when it came to cleanliness, hard work, and human depravity.
      And there we sit at the kitchen table. I play George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ on my partially melted cassette deck. She loves this song—always has, although, perhaps, only because she thought I liked it. I bought her that single with nothing to play it on. But I could have bought her any single, heavy metal whatever, and she would have loved it. I could have bought her a necklace displaying a gilded dog turd and she would have loved it. That is the mystery of a mother. And that mystery might bring tears to my eyes later as she’s driving home.
      She sat there quietly staring down at crumbs. I could see her hand sweeping like a propeller blade to clean the crumbs from my table into her right hand and getting up to drop into my sink. She sat back down. I noticed her hands fumbling with a tight wad of paper. Her hands red, rashy from years of exposure to cleaning fluids as a cleaning lady. She unwadded the paper and said: ‘I carry this with me in my pocketbook to sometimes look at and I think: what happen to this nice boy?’
      I slide the paper from her side to my side of the table and read:

                  My mother
                  i told her i was cold
                  in my room at nite
                  she left me a blanket
                  & a hot water bottle wrapped in a sock

      I remember it was a poem published in the magazine Darkroom Techniques from however long ago. I don’t remember the rest of the poem and I never thought she actually ever read it. And here it was this little flattering snippet torn from a longer poem.
      ‘What’s in the container? You don’t have to bring stuff to eat. I DO have food in the house.’
      ‘Waar den? Dis is your vader’s ashes I do carry wid me always. Or do you forget.’
      ‘It’s a frickin’ Tupperware container.’
      ‘I know daat. It is vhy. It always stay close.’
      ‘What’re you gonna do with the ashes?’
      ‘I don’t know. I poot it on de seat next to me when I go home. In de car he sits next to me. I talk wid him.’
      ‘That’s frickin’ weird.’
      ‘It is maybe to you who have not lost de one you love…’
      ‘He was my father…’
      ‘But you never show him you love him…If it upset you, I will poot it back in my bag.’
      ‘No, leave it.’
      And she did. And my father’s absence, the remaining evidence of that absence suddenly gained a kind of strange mnemonic presence. Fingers rapping the table to a Beastie Boy beat.
      ‘Please hold up met dat dromming.’
      We enter an extraordinary silence where memories confabulate entire holographic films starring my father and we are both watching this ‘movie’. His Buddhist calm in the face of household repairs, fixing toys and gadgets. His great calm to sit for hours fishing, awkward in his American straw hat, staring at the bobber for hours, waiting for a bite. I want to tell her I really admired that about him—that waiting for a fish that may not strike…and didn’t.
      That my mother could talk forever about nothing but almost never about something was also part of the conundrum. My father had ‘disappeared’ during WWII and never really ‘reappeared’—if you know what I mean. He was an engineer and worked everyday and brought home presents (tin wind-up toys, a humming top) and yet, he was never quite there, deep in thought, in WWII books, the World at War on TV.
      ‘What’s about your vader’s ashes?’
      ‘What about’m? Should I sprinkle them on my cornflakes?’
      ‘You do not even haff your cornflakes.’
      ‘I think the weird thing is that he stopped taking his Coumadin.’
      ‘He did take them every day and I watch him to be sure.’
      ‘I found 133 tablets in a small box in a drawer.’
      ‘I do not want to hear you talk about him so.’
      ‘He left them behind to show that he could die of his own accord. Dignity in death…’
      ‘I know not where you get dis from? You are saying that I am to blame for him wanting to die?’
      ‘NO. It is just that in surviving he saw himself losing face, dignity.’
      ‘I try to give him…’
      ‘It wasn’t for you to give. Pain and debilitation squeeze the spirit from the soul.’
      ‘I do NOT want to hear any more.’ The more I thought about it, the more sense it all made. Indeed, her vigilance, her excessive doting drove him crazy. He wanted death to arrive with a glass of whiskey while watching porn.
      The phone rings again.
      ‘Do not these vimen want me to be two minutes alone met her son?’
      Answering machine:…‘Where are you? I gave you sexual favors. And then you disappear. This means I’ve offered you sex under false pretenses. And I do mean favors! What gives? If I don’t get satisfactory answers in 24 hours — it’s four on Sunday — I will go public with details of your BEEEEEEEEP…’
      ‘What is de matter here? You are not tellink de troot? I seem to not know you no more.” She picks up the glass of flat beer. “Dis is disgusting mit duh roaches dar in.’
      ‘It’s a roach trap. They’re attracted, crawl in, get drunk and drown. At least they go out high. It was a beer I wasn’t going to drink anyway. I mean, what’s the big deal!? So I left a beer out over night.’
      ‘It iss filt’y. No wunder dat you are popular met dem.’ Her heaven would be a tidy and orderly place. ‘Let me help. We clean up and we feel better.’ To her, tidying up was psychiatric therapy. To her untidiness, a dusty place, was indicative of — nay — the very cause of depression and failure. Dust, dirt, and clutter were the enemies of sanity, well-being, progress. Sanitation for sanity. She saw my ‘suitcases’ emblazoned with hundreds of beer labels. I had already fit my beer paraphernalia collection into three old, street-rescued, Naugahyde-covered cardboard suitcases.
      ‘Are you now moving some place new again?’
      ‘Vhy not find a nice place wid a nice girl who can cook a little bit you know?’
      ‘I dunno. I think I mighta found a “Nice” girl.’ Mom didn’t get it. Nice—Eunice—You Nice! I admire how Nice can live nowhere, no knickknacks. A PO box and pride of no place. The beauty of her impermanence [the neither here-nor-thereness] lends her mystique.
      ‘You were always so happy as a boy. And now…Maybe preparing always for your worst you make happen this worst.’
      Another half hour, another glass of lukewarm water…she speaks up: ‘To stay here will drive me crazy. And you too. I will use a toilet in maybe a restaurant…’
      ‘We can go to Leshkos. Eat something.’
      ‘The people from in New York, they cook dirty. I see it on the news. I do not vaant to get sick riding home. Or is dat vat you vaant?’
      ‘Let’s go to Veselka then.’
      ‘No. I do not want the strange food. I get sad when I stay in dis place.’
      ‘That’s what I mean. Let’s go out.’
      ‘You have no money. I am not paying again and I mean by dis place your New York.’
      I walk her out—she lasted 90 minutes; hand gripping my elbow—down the stoop; I kick a used Pamper into the gutter…I walk her up the street to her car. Runs a finger over the car hood.
      ‘LOOOK, I just clean my car and already a laag of dirt in two hours of time. And I want to ask you now again if you will help me with those salesmens.’
      ‘I will. We’ll get them.’ She’s being harassed by burial plot and gravestone salesmen and we think we know where they’re located.
      ‘Next time.’
      ‘When will that be? I hope before I die.’
      She climbs into her Honda Civic. I notice her swollen ankles, the blossoms of varicose veins on the backs of her calves. The climb into the driver’s seat is serenaded by a tragic stillness. From the black-and-white WW2 photos it’s obvious she once had perfect slender legs and a smile that glowed. And now she hunches over slightly like she’s curling back up into the spiralling cocoon of birth.
      She seems to repeat memories as testimony to her immortality. Maybe it’s just the opposite: each memory is flawed or a necessary, rewritten fiction, like a teen who brags about his sex life to hide the fact that he’s a premature ejaculator.
      She waves me into the passenger seat. We sit in the car together for 10 minutes because there’s 10 minutes left on the meter.
      The way she holds the top of the steering wheel as tightly as ever. Her eyes straining just above the wheel’s upper curve. Her knuckles turning white. Just sitting there.
      ‘OK, mom, put’r in drive.’ Just as I get out, I watch her reach into her tote bag and place the Tupperware container with my father’s ashes on the passenger seat next to her.       AQ