Read an Excerpt
Birds of a Lesser Paradise
I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change lightbulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make a piecrust and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawl space with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.
Turn left, Ike says, in a falsetto British accent.
There is no left—only a Carolina road that appears infinitely flat, surrounded by pines and the occasional car dealership billboard. I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again.
Exit approaching, he says from the backseat. Bear right.
Who are you today? I ask.
The lady that lives in the GPS, Ike says. Mary Poppins.
My son is a forty-three-pound drama queen, a mercurial shrimp of a boy who knows many of the words to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre. He draws two eyes and a mouth on the fogged-up window.
Baby, I say, don’t do that unless you have Windex in your backpack.
Can you turn this song up? he says.
I watch him in the rearview mirror. He vogues like Madonna in his booster seat. His white-blond shag swings with the bass.
You should dress more like Gwen Stefani, he says.
I picture myself in lamé hot pants and thigh-highs.
Do you need to pee? I ask. We could stop for lunch.
Ike sighs and pushes my old Wayfarers into his hair.
Chicken nuggets? he asks.
If I were a better mother, I would say no. If I were a better mother, there would be a cooler with a crustless PB and J in a Baggie, a plastic bin of carrot wedges and seedless grapes. If I were a better daughter, Ike would have known his grandmother, spent more time in her arms, wowed her with his impersonation of Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp.
How many eggs could a pterodactyl lay at one time? Ike asks.
Probably no more than one, I say. One pterodactyl is enough for any mother.
How much longer? Ike asks.
Four hours, I say.
Last night I didn’t sleep. Realizing it was Mom’s birthday, I tried to remember the way her clothes smelled, the freckles on her clavicle, her shoe size, the sound of her voice. When I couldn’t find those things in my memory, I decided to take Ike on a field trip.
Four hours ’til what? he says.
You’ll see, I say.
I haven’t told Ike that we’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice call from the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.
In moments of profound starvation, the exterminator told me, humpback crickets may devour their own legs, though they cannot regenerate limbs.
Hell of a party trick, I said.
My house has been for sale for a year and two months and a contract has finally come in, contingent on a home inspection. My firm has offered to transfer me to a paralegal supervisory position in Connecticut—a state where Ike has a better chance of escaping childhood obesity, God, and conservative political leanings. I can’t afford to leave until the house sells. My Realtor has tried scented candles, toile valances, and apple pies in the oven, but no smoke screen detracts from the cricket infestation.
They jump, the Realtor said before I left town with Ike. Whenever I open the door to the basement, they hurl themselves at me. They’re like jumping spiders on steroids. Do something.
Doesn’t everyone have this problem? I said. The exterminator already comes weekly, and I’ve installed sodium vapor bulbs.
This is your chance, he said. If you clear out for the weekend, I can get a team in for a deep clean. We’ll vacuum them up, go for a quick fix.
I thought about Mom, then, and her parrot. With a potential move farther north in the future, this might be my last opportunity to hear her voice.
Okay, I said. I have a place in mind. A little road trip. Ike and I can clear out.
I’ll see you Sunday, the Realtor said, walking to his compact convertible, his shirt crisp and tucked neatly into his pressed pants. I’ll come over for a walk-through before the inspection.
That night, Ike and I covered scrap siding in glue and fly paper and scattered our torture devices throughout the basement, hoping to reduce the number of crickets.
I hope you’re coming down later to get the bodies, Ike said. Because I’m not.
He shivered and stuck out his tongue at the crickets, which flung themselves from wall to ledge to ceiling.
The cleaners will get rid of them, I said. If not, we’ll never sell this house.
What if we live here forever? he asked.
People used to do that, I said. Live in one house their entire lives. Your grandmother, for instance.
I pictured her house, a two-bedroom white ranch with window boxes, brick chimney, and decorative screen door. The driveway was unpaved—an arc of sand, grass, and crushed oyster shells that led to a tin-covered carport. When I was growing up, there was no neighborhood—only adjoining farms and country lots with rambling cow pastures. People didn’t have fancy landscaping. Mom had tended her azaleas and boxwoods with halfhearted practicality, in case the chickens or sheep broke loose. The house was empty now, a tiny exoskeleton on a tree-cleared lot next to a Super Walmart.
I pull into a rest stop, one of those suspicious gas station and fast-food combos. Ike kicks the back of the passenger seat. I scowl in the rearview.
I need to stretch, he says. I have a cramp.
Ike’s legs are the width of my wrist, hairless and pale. He is sweet and unassuming. He does not yet know he will be picked on for being undersized, for growing facial hair ten years too late.
I want to wrap him in plastic and preserve him so that he can always be this way, this content. To my heart, Ike is still a neonate, a soft body I could gently fold and carry inside of me again.
Ike and I lock the car and head into the gas station. A man with black hair curling across his neck and shoulders hustles into the restroom. He breathes hard, scratches his ear, and checks his phone. Next, a sickly looking man whose pants are too big shuffles by. He pauses to wipe his forehead with his sleeve. I think: These people are someone’s children.
I clench Ike’s hand. I can feel his knuckles, the small bones beneath his flesh.
Inside the restroom, the toilets hiss. I hold Ike by the shoulders; I do not want him to go in alone, but at seven, he’s ready for some independence.
Garlic burst, he reads from a cellophane bag. Big flavor!
I play with his cowlick. When Ike was born, he had a whorl of hair on the crown of his head like a small hurricane. He also had what the nurse called stork bites on the back of his neck and eyelids.
The things my body has done to him, I think. Cancer genes, hay fever, high blood pressure, perhaps a fear of math—these are my gifts.
I have to pee, he says.
I release him, let him skip into the fluorescent, germ-infested cave, a room slick with mistakes and full of the type of men I hope he’ll never become.
The first time I met my mother’s parrot, he was clinging to a wrought iron perch on the front porch. I was living in an apartment complex in a neighboring suburb, finishing up classes at the community college. After my father’s death, Mom and I had vowed to eat breakfast together weekly. That morning I was surprised to find a large gray bird joining us.
The house was too quiet, Mom said. His owner gave me everything. I didn’t even have to buy the cages.
You trust him not to fly away? I said.
I guess I do, she said.
When she first got him, Carnie could already imitate the sound of oncoming traffic, an ambulance siren, leaves rustling, the way Pete Sampras hit a tennis ball on TV. Soon, he could replicate my mother’s voice perfectly, her contralto imitations of Judy Garland and Reba McEntire, the way she answered the phone. What are you selling? I’m not interested.
A month later, during breakfast, the bird moved from his perch to my shoulder without permission.
Mom, I said. Get this damn bird off of me.
Language! she warned. He’s a sponge. She brought her arm to my shoulder and Carnie stepped onto it. She scratched his neck lovingly.
I was still grieving Dad, and it was strange to watch Mom find so much joy in this ebony-beaked wiseass.
What are you selling? the bird said. I already have car insurance. Carnie spoke with perfect inflection, but he addressed his words to the air—a song, not conversation.
You can’t take anything personally, Mom warned.
The man of the house is not here, Carnie said. He’s dead. You really take it easy on those telemarketers, I said, looking at Mom.
Dead, dead, dead, Carnie said.
That night, he shredded the newspaper in his enclosure, which smelled like a stable. Lights out, Mom said, and tossed a threadbare beach towel over his cage. Carnie belted out the first verse of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” then fell silent for the evening. His parlor tricks seemed cheap, and I hated the easy way he’d endeared himself to Mom.
The next week, Carnie became violently protective of her. Wings clipped, he chased me on foot through the halls and hid behind doorframes, not realizing his beak stuck out beyond the molding. As I tried to shoo him from the kitchen counter, he savagely bit my wrist and fingers. Then, days later, as if exchanged for a new bird, Carnie lightened up and preened my hair while perched on the back of the couch.
I’ll take him to the vet, Mom said, mildly apologetic for her bird’s bipolar antics. She was a perfectionist, and I knew she wanted a bird she could be proud of. But I think part of her was flattered by Carnie’s aggressive loyalty.
Show me how you pet the bird, the vet, a behaviorist, had said.
Carnie, inching left and right on Mom’s wrist, cocked his head to one side and shot us the eye. Like a whale, he gave us one side of his face at a time, revealing a tiny yellow iris, ensconced in a white mask the size of a thumbprint, one that looked out at the world with remarkable clarity.
Mom ran her index finger down Carnie’s chest.
I don’t know how to tell you this, the behaviorist said, but you’ve been sexually stimulating your parrot.
Inadvertently, the behaviorist said. Of course.
He thinks I’m his mate? Mom asked.
Less cuddling, the specialist said, more cage time.
I called three places to find Carnie—the plumber who took him, the bird sanctuary he’d pawned the parrot off on, then the roadside zoo. Now the car is too warm and I’m falling asleep, but I don’t want to blast Ike with the AC. He’s playing card games on the console.
Are we leaving so that people can move into our house? Ike asks.
We’re going to Ted’s Roadside Zoo, I say.
Go fish, Ike says. What’s at the zoo?
There’s a bird I want to see, I say.
What, he asks, is gin rummy?
We pass a couple in a sedan. The woman is crying and flips down her visor.
It’s hard being a single mom, but it’s easier than being a miserable wife. I hardly knew Ike’s father; he was what I’d call a five-night stand. We used to get coffee at the same place before work. The director of the local college theater, he was a notorious flirt, a married one. Separated, he’d claimed. He sends a little money each month, but doesn’t want to be involved. The upside to our arrangement is simplicity.
I put some pressure on the gas and pass a school bus.
Did I tell you about Louis’s mom? Ike says. How she got on the bus last week?
Louis’s mom is a born-again Christian with two poodles and a coke habit, the kind of person I avoid at T-ball games and open houses at school.
Tuesday afternoon, Ike says, she gets on the bus with her dogs, raises her fist, and says something like, Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen.
No, I say. Really?
Ike pauses for a minute, as if he needs time to conjure the scene. Really, Ike says. Louis pretended not to know her when she got on, but his mom held on to that silver bar at the front of the bus and said, Lord, I’ve been places where people don’t put pepper on their eggs. Then she started to dance.
Ike waves his arms in front of his face, fingers spread, imitating Louis’s strung-out mother. I see the rust-colored clouds of eczema on his forearms. I want to fix everything. I want him to know nothing but gentle landings. I don’t want him to know that people like Louis’s mom exist, that people fall into land mines of pain and can’t crawl back out.
When Ike was almost a year old, I brought him by for Mom to hold while I emptied the old milk from her fridge and scrubbed her toilets. I tried to come at least once a month to tidy the place and check in on Mom. The living room was beginning to smell; Mom was not cleaning up after Carnie. Suddenly the woman who’d ironed tablecloths, polished silver, bleached dinner napkins, and rotated mattresses had given up on housekeeping.
Would you like to hold Ike while I clean? I said.
Mom sat in a brown leather recliner, Carnie in his white lacquered cage a foot away from her—always within sight. Mom was losing weight and I worried she wasn’t eating well. I brought her cartons of cottage cheese and chicken salad, only to find them spoiled the following month.
Are you trying to sell my house? she said. Are you giving Realtors my number? They’re calling with offers.
There’s a shopping center going in next door, I said. This may be your chance to sell.
I placed Ike in her arms.
It’s not hard to lose the baby weight, Mom said, eyeing my waistline, if you try.
I was determined not to fight back. There was heat between us, long-standing arguments we couldn’t remember but could still feel burning—should we sell Dad’s tools? Should she go to the eye doctor? Who would care for her goddamned bird? Didn’t I know how hard they’d worked to give me the right opportunities? Our disagreements were so sharp, so intense that we’d become afraid to engage with each other, and when we stopped fighting, we lost something.
You’re like your father now, she said. You never get mad, even when you want to.
It was true—Dad was hard to anger, even when I’d wasted fifteen thousand dollars of his hard-earned money on my freshman year of college at a private school they couldn’t afford. When I came home for the summer, he’d sat with his hands in his lap and a face that was more sad than disappointed. Mom stood behind him, silent and threatening. I knew later that night she’d berate him for taking it easy on me, and I hated her for it.
I guess you’ll need to get a job, he said.
Dad, I said. I made a lot of mistakes this year—
I wanted to give you a good chance, he said, looking down at his fingers.
I remember feeling relieved that he wasn’t yelling at me. Now I wish he had.
I’d do it again, he said. But you understand, there just isn’t enough money to take the risk on another year.
Now I tortured myself imagining each of his hours. He worked at the same plant for twenty-six years making industrial-quality tools—hammers, chisels, knives, clamps. Every day he ate a cold lunch on a bench caked with pigeon shit. I could almost hear the echoes of men moving and talking, their spoken lives bouncing from the plant rafters as their hands worked. The black hole of his effort, the way it would never be enough, or easy—it hung over me, a debt I couldn’t pay.
Mom ran her fingers over Ike’s cowlick. I emptied the trash can in the kitchen, then the living room.
While you’re at it, she said, would you change the newspaper in Carnie’s cage? And top off his water?
As I approached the bird’s cage, he let out a piercing scream, his black beak open. I held my hand up as if to say “stop.” Cut the screaming, I said.
Put your hand down, Mom said. You’re scaring him.
Carnie continued to scream. It was a pleading, horrifying sound, like an alarm. He cocked his head and danced across his bar, shrieking. Ike began to cry.
Never mind, Mom said. I’ll do it.
She thrust Ike in my arms and marched toward the cage. She opened the door and Carnie scampered onto her finger. She brought him to her shoulder. He was silent. Mom pulled the newsprint from the bottom of his cage with bare hands. Dried bird shit fell to the carpet; she didn’t seem to notice.
Let me help you, I said. Sit down. I can do this.
Sit down, Carnie said. Sit down. Sit down.
Mom ignored me and walked to the kitchen, stuffing the soiled papers into the trash can.
You should wash your hands, I said.
Don’t tell me what to do, she said.
Sit down, Carnie said. Sit down.
I found Carnie’s high-volume pleas disconcerting and worried they agitated Ike, who clung to my shoulder. There were things, once, that I thought I deserved. My parents’ money, and certainly their unconditional love. But as years passed, our love had turned into a bartering system, a list of complicated IOUs.
I’m sorry, I said. I don’t know about birds.
You’ll learn, Mom said. Soon.
Ike and I arrive in Myrtle Beach at eight p.m. I know the zoo will be closed at this hour, so we find a Days Inn. There’s something about the hum of an ice machine and waterlogged Astroturf that takes me back to childhood.
Ike face-plants onto the bed before I can remove the comforter.
Wait a second, baby, I say. Let me get that dirty thing off.
We get in bed and flip through channels on TV. Ike holds the fabric of my pajama legs with one hand, wraps the other around a blanket my mother crocheted for me when I was in college. His travel blanket. I feel sad every time I see it: the coral and black starbursts, the tight knots. I remember a hotel I stayed in with my mother during her own mother’s funeral. Downtown Norfolk, 1986. There was a rotating bucket of chicken on a sign pole below our window. I watched it spin. Even when the lights were off, and my mother cried into her pillow, I watched that bucket of chicken rotate like the world itself.
I remember thinking that moms were not allowed to be sad, that surely women grew out of sadness by the time they had children.
Mom, Ike says. I don’t want to move.
His eyes flicker and he fades. The news is on. A lipstick-shellacked anchor tells of a new breed of aggressive python in southern Florida that strangled a toddler in his sleep. Maybe one will come to our hotel, I think. I will have to fight it off with my pocketknife, club it with the glass lamp on the bedside table, offer it my own body.
On our second date, Ike’s father showed me a video of an infant in Andhra Pradesh. The child had rich brown skin and curious eyes. He pulled himself across a grass mat while a cobra, hood spread, hovered above the boy’s soft body. The baby grabbed after the cobra’s tail while the toothless snake struck him repeatedly on his downy head, snapping down upon his body like a whip.
This, Ike’s father said, is how you cultivate the absence of fear. Don’t you wish someone had given you that gift?
Fear keeps me safe, I said.
Snakes. Why do I think of these things before I try to fall asleep?
I put one arm across Ike’s chest so that I will know if he moves. I can feel the pattern of his breath, the calm and easy way he sleeps, the simple way he dreams.
When I move out, Mom had said, I need you to take Carnie.
It was the hundredth time she’d asked. We had her bills and bank statements spread out on the coffee table. Her eyesight was failing and we knew she couldn’t live alone much longer. It was time to plan.
Carnie hung upside down in his cage. Empty seed casings and shredded newspaper littered the floor. Occasionally he pecked at his image in a foil mirror, rang a bell with his beak.
I don’t want the bird, I said. He hates me. He’s drawn blood, for Christ’s sake.
If you loved me, Mom said, you’d take him. I can’t sleep without knowing he’s safe and taken care of.
That’s what you get, I said, for adopting a bird with a life expectancy longer than your own.
You know, she said. Then she stopped, as if she was afraid of what she’d say next.
I’d always felt Mom’s vision of perfection was outdated. I was never the ruddy-faced, pure-of-heart Girl Scout with 4-H-approved sheep-grooming skills that she’d been. I failed home ec and took a liking to underground hip-hop and traveling jam bands, dyed my hair blue with Kool-Aid one high school summer. In college I got a tattoo of a purple Grateful Dead bear on the back of my neck that had infuriated Mom when she saw it. When Ike was little, he used to lift my hair to find the purple bear hiding underneath. At least someone liked it.
In Mom’s eyes, atonement was more than walking the line, more than surfacing from the typical angst-ridden throes of adolescence and early scholastic failures. Atonement included my adoption of a bird I couldn’t trust around my son. A bird I’d hated for over a decade.
I don’t trust the bird around Ike, and I can’t handle the mess, the noise—
Mom was silent. I’ll give Carnie to the plumber, Mom said, collecting herself. He’s always liked Carnie. He mentioned he was looking for a bird for his kids.
I wish I could take him, I said.
Lying doesn’t help, Mom said.
Even before I see it, Ted’s Roadside Zoo depresses me. We park outside. The entrance is a plaster lion’s face. We walk through its mouth. On the lion’s right canine, someone has written: Jenny is a midget whore.
This place smells like pee, Ike says.
It’s nine a.m., but it feels like Ted’s place isn’t open. I’ve yet to see an employee, not even a ticket seller. We walk a sand and gravel path, faux palm trees overhead.
I’ve heard stories about these places, how they keep big cats in small enclosures. How the animals often have ingrown nails and zero percent body fat.
I have the urge to call out, Mom? as if I’m coming home after a long day.
We find a man feeding a seal.
Where are your birds? I ask. Specifically, your African gray? We have two, he says. Over by the vending machines.
I need the one named Carnie, I say. The one you received from the Red Oak Bird Sanctuary.
I think it’s the one on the left, he says. They all look alike, you know?
Ike and I find the birds. I can’t help but feel guilty that Carnie ended up in a place like this. There’s gum stuck to the bars of his cage.
I home in on Carnie’s knowing eye, the white mask. He looked like the same bird, though his gray feathers had worn thin around his neck.
Carnie, I say. Carnie. Carnie. Good boy. What do you want for dinner?
I pull out a pack of sunflower seeds I purchased at the Zip Mart down the road.
I look at the white down on the bird’s chest and think: Mom’s voice is in there.
Ike closes in on the cage. He waves his hands in front of the parrot’s face.
The sign on Carnie’s cage reads: African gray parrots are as smart as a three-year-old.
I don’t believe it, Ike says.
Carnie? I ask. Want to sing some Patsy?
For a half hour, Ike and I coo and speak and dance, but the bird doesn’t say a word. Beneath this wall of gray feathers is the last shard of my mother’s voice, and I feel myself growing increasingly desperate. How thick was her accent? Was her singing voice as beautiful as I remember? She always spoke sweetly to Carnie and I wanted to hear that sugary tone, the one she hadn’t used with me in her last years.
How do you know this is the right bird? Ike asks.
I did my research, I say. And he hates me. He’s spiting me with silence.
Please talk, Ike says to Carnie. Carnie bobs his head up and down and bites his leg, a gesture that strikes me as the bird equivalent of thumbing one’s nose.
Just say something, I think. Anything. Just let me hear her again.
I’m surprised when I remember phone numbers and the alphabetical order of all fifty states, the way I can summon Deuteronomy like a song during a long run. But I can’t recall the funny way Mom said “roof” or “Clorox.” Not the rhyme she made up about bad breath or the toothpaste jingle she had stuck in her head for two years, not the sound of the way she said good night. The longer Carnie goes without talking, the more I miss her.
A month after we decided to move Mom into a home, the plumber came for Carnie. Mom’s possessions had been boxed up and her furniture sold. She’d prepared a box for Carnie that contained his food, toys, water dish, spare newsprint, and a fabric square from one of her dresses. So he remembers me, she said.
The kids are excited, the plumber said. He was tall and large and moved quickly. I was thankful for his efficiency.
I’ll be in the car, Mom said, letting herself out of the house. The screen door shut behind her with metallic resonance, as it had thousands of times. I didn’t like letting her descend the steps on her own, but I knew, in this moment, she’d refuse help. I took the box of Carnie’s things and followed the plumber to his car, dropping a towel over the cage in the backseat of his truck.
I’m always walkin’, Carnie sang, after midnight. . . .
I couldn’t look at Mom as I turned to wave at the plumber as he pulled away. I knew she was crying. I was relieved to see Carnie go, to have the burden of his welfare hoisted onto someone else’s shoulders. But I couldn’t escape the sadness of the moment. There was an air of finality—my mother grieving in the car, our small home empty.
After the plumber’s car was out of sight, I walked through the house one last time. I could almost hear the place settling, breathing a sigh of relief, coming down from a high. Still, there was a palpable residue of our past lives, as if old fights and parrot tirades had left their marks. I paused over my father’s plaster fixes and custom molding, things shaped by his hands that I couldn’t take with me. Empty, the house reminded me of a tombstone, a commemoration of my childhood. With the shopping center going up next door, I had the feeling no one else would ever live there again.
I joined Mom in the car. I imagined that her stillness and set face belied inner fragility, that beneath the crust lay a deep well of hurt. As I turned onto the highway, I saw her touch her shoulder, the place where Carnie had so often rested, his remembered weight now a phantom presence on her thinning bones.
We’ve been driving on I-95, toward home, for five hours. Ike has been in and out of naps. We pass a billboard that says Jesus Is Watching.
Jesus makes me nervous, Ike says. Jesus is a spy.
I laugh and then pause, thinking how the statement would have made Mom uncomfortable. The night sets in and Ike grows quiet. I watch his eyes in the rearview. I wonder what he’s thinking about.
Will you love me forever? I think to myself. Will you love me when I’m old? If I go crazy? Will you be embarrassed of me? Avoid my calls? Wash dishes when you talk to me on the phone, roll your eyes, lay the receiver down next to the cat?
I realize how badly I need a piece of my mother. A scrap, a sound, a smell—something.
I hunger for the person who birthed me, whose body, I realized after becoming a mother myself, was overrun with nerve endings that ran straight to her heart, until it was numb with overuse, or until, perhaps, she felt nothing.
One more stop, I say to Ike.
We pull into the dark gravel driveway of my mother’s house. There’s no neighborhood, no signage. It’s just a plain, deserted house for plain folks on what is now a major highway. The white paint peels from the siding. I remember pulling into this driveway when I was past curfew, the light in my mother’s bedroom glowing, the way I could simultaneously dread and love the thought of slipping through the front door, pouring a glass of water, and crafting an elaborate lie to explain my late arrival.
Ike is sleepy. He’s wearing my rain jacket and has the hood cinched tightly around his face, though it’s barely raining. RVs are pulling into the Walmart parking lot for the night. The smell of wet leaves makes me sick to my stomach with nostalgia. The boxwoods are overgrown and shapeless.
Hold my hand, I say to Ike. Stay close.
The screen door is intact, though the screen itself is punctured and webbed over. I hold it open, stare into the dirty glass of the front door. I try the knob—locked.
I have to go in, I say. Close your eyes.
I break the front door pane with the butt of the knife I carry in my purse and carefully reach in through a mouth of glass teeth to turn the doorknob.
This is weird, Ike says. I’m scared.
I clench his wrist. My knuckles are cold and I worry that my grip on Ike’s arm is too tight. But I do not let go.
The damp carpet heaves underneath my feet. The house smells like a cave, and yet, like home. I walk around, inspecting things, Ike close behind me. Checkered contact paper still lines the pantry shelves. Windows are cracked; sills are covered in dead wasps and crumpled spiders. There is mold on the drywall and water spots on the ceiling. Someone has taken red spray paint to the fireplace and living room wall. The stove and toilet have been ripped out. Ike starts to cry.
It’s okay, I say. I just want to stay here a minute.
I lead him to the back of the house, down the hallway that still feels more familiar to me than any other. My bedroom, with its teal carpet and pale pink walls, looks small. Barren. At first, it is so quiet my teeth ache. My ears strain.
I’m sad that you lived here, Ike says.
It wasn’t that bad, honey, I say. This was a beautiful house.
The crown molding my father installed lines the ceiling, though one loose piece sags. I remember him getting up early so that he could work on it before heading to the plant. It was my mother’s birthday present—crown molding for my room.
My father died on the steps of the tool manufacturing plant, not ten minutes down the road. A heart attack. The doctors said it was a birth defect, that he was born with a weak heart. Now the building is empty, abandoned, as if all his work was for nothing. Mom’s grief was as long as a river, endless.
I walk back to the kitchen and climb onto the green plastic countertop. Ike watches me, curious and confused. I remove the valances Mom made in the early eighties; dried bugs fall from the folds of the fabric into the sink below. These are the things with which she made a home. Her contributions to our house were humble, projects that took weeks of stitching and unstitching, measuring, cutting, gathering. I realize now how much of our house was crafted by hand. My father had laid the carpeting and linoleum. Mom had twice painted and reupholstered the dining chairs. My parents were quick-fix averse, always in for the long haul. When the country road in front of their house had been widened to a highway, they complained but never entertained the idea of moving.
I scan the kitchen and picture Mom paying bills at the table, her perfect script, the way she always listed her occupation with pride: homemaker.
I feel a new respect for thrift and permanence.
Next I pull scraps of peeling wallpaper from unglued seams and corners. I pull it slow and steady like skin after a sunburn; the old adhesive gives easily.
Mementos, I tell Ike. I close my eyes. Now I can hear my mother everywhere—in the kitchen, in my bedroom, on the front porch.
Turn off the television.
Warm up the stove.
Brush your hair.
Put your father’s shoes where I can’t see them. In the trash.
On Sunday, as promised, my Realtor arrives a half hour before the potential buyers and their home inspector.
Your house should look as perfect as possible, he’d said before I left for the weekend. Ask yourself: What would Jackie Onassis do?
When I see the Realtor’s convertible in the driveway, I ask Ike: Think you can box up the mini NASCARs and finger puppets?
Sorry I’m late, our Realtor says. He is a slightly overweight cosmopolitan type who wears ostrich-skin loafers and tonic in his hair.
He rushes to the kitchen, as if he has immediately sensed disorder. He strokes the valance over the kitchen window. I remembered last night, as I was hanging it, that Mom had found the pattern in Southern Living.
Is this velvet? he says. Are these . . . cobwebs?
I have placed scraps of rogue wallpaper next to my stove and another in the bathroom—a repeating pattern of pale brown cornucopias and faded fruit I took from my mother’s house.
These must come down, the Realtor says. Now.
He pinches the curling shreds with his thumb and forefinger.
Leave it, I say. They add charm.
You’ll never sell this house, he says, shaking his head in despair. Crickets on speed and a curtain that Elvis made in home economics class. Get serious.
Apple pie? I ask, pulling out a day-old pastry I had purchased from the market’s discount bread bin that morning. I’ve steeled myself against critique. There are too many things I can’t fix.
A couple in a minivan pulls up in front of the house, followed by the home inspector in a pickup truck. They come to the door, their faces already twisted with scrutiny. She is small and blond and he is thick like an old football player.
Hi, I say. Welcome. We’re about to head out; the house is all yours.
I stuff some magazines and soda into a canvas bag and look around for Ike. I hear him running up the basement steps.
Ike presents a scrap of siding that is covered in glue and cricket exoskeletons. It is not, I suspect, a winning move. Apparently, enough crickets survived the Realtor’s quick fix only to meet their end on our glue board. The couple exchange a glance. The inspector scribbles a note.
I crouch down to the floor and touch Ike’s cheek. You’re brave, I say. Thank you.
Ike grins. Together, we can make a solid grilled cheese, prune shrubs, clean house. Together, maybe we’re the housewife this house needs. Maybe we weren’t made for Connecticut’s long winters. Maybe our best life is here. On a good day, we’re just one man short of a catalog-worthy family.
A week before she left for the nursing home, we packed my mother’s belongings. Ike had just started kindergarten. Leaving him at a friend’s house to spend time with Mom on a Saturday was a miserable trade-off. I wanted to soak up every last bit of innocence he had left, answer every question, scoop him up for hugs when he’d allow it. But I was the only person Mom would allow in the house; there was no one else around to help.
I held up various tchotchkes for Mom’s approval.
Take or toss? I asked.
Mom sat in her recliner. She wore a light blue dress she’d made herself. The fabric was so worn it was nearly transparent. Carnie rested comfortably on her shoulder. I worried that his talons would break her thinning skin, but she moved as if she hardly noticed his weight.
I held up a box of ornaments, plastic apples I’d hand-painted for her as a child.
Toss ’em, she said.
I began to wrap her glassware in newspaper.
Make sure to leave plenty of print for lining Carnie’s cage, she said.
My mother cupped Carnie with both hands and brought him to her lap. She crossed her legs, then scratched the finger-wide point between Carnie’s wings. His eyes, like little black seeds, fell to half-mast as she stroked him. They were accustomed to each other, a pair of sad habits. He was more familiar with her voice and touch than I, more dear to her everyday existence. His transgressions—dirty cage, the occasional nip of her finger—were met with gentle understanding.
Don’t call here again, he said. Don’t call.
Remember, I told my mother. I’m not obligated to look after that bird.
Well, she said, I’m not obligated to look after you.
You are, I thought, her words a splinter in my chest. You have to be.
In that moment, I withered. I hated her for her coldness, her stubborn rationale, her ability to come up big in a fight even when she was dog-tired and bird-boned and couldn’t see the food on the end of her fork.
There she sat, outmoded in her homemade dress, bird in her lap, shit on her shoulder. Steamrolled by the world, but in the face of defeat she threatened us all.
Carnie moved back to her shoulder and buried his head into her thin hair, almost as if he was taking her in, making a memory. It occurred to me that with her voice inside of him he would always have more of her to remember.
You don’t want to keep these? I asked, giving her a second chance on a box of photographs.
My heart, she’d said. I can turn it off.
For years, I’d believed her.
But I know the truth now. What maniacs we are—sick with love, all of us.