Mary Catherine Curley
Two days before she left, my mother pinned a newspaper clipping to the corkboard in our kitchen.
January and February 2002: “Seafarers and satellites notice something amiss in the Gulf of Mexico. The seas north and west of the Florida Keys have grown dark, with nearly 700 square miles of water (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island) taking on the color of black ink. Tests show this ‘black water’ has normal salinity and oxygen levels, but researchers suspect an unusual, non-toxic algal bloom. There are none of the usual signs of a HAB, but fishermen note that the black water seems to be devoid of fish.”
Our corkboard was covered in articles like these: in October, a swarm of three dozen blackbirds flocked in panicked patterns above the trees in Philadelphia for over two hours. Three teenagers cutting class to smoke cigarettes captured it on video on their cell phones. Two years ago, seven dead dolphins had washed up on Revere Beach in Boston. Their bodies formed a delicate straight line across the sand. Recent tests at Lake Karachay in Russia, former storage site of nuclear waste, revealed that a human being standing for thirty minutes at the shore would receive a dose of radiation that could kill them.
There had been a time when I asked her about the articles. “What do they mean, Mom?” I might have asked when I was fourteen, fifteen. Elizabeth would shiver, as though she were equipped with an eerily fine-tuned plague-sensor, a direct line to Moses. There were days when this direct line was so distracting she could barely focus on things like turning the stove off when she left the house, or picking me up from school. I would find her sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair with her boots up on the railing, her hair hiding her face.
“Mom?” I’d ask, poking her shoulder.
“Mmm? Hey, baby girl. Hey.” Some days she’d pull me close to her, especially when I was younger, still young enough to sit on the couch with her and act out Bible stories, young enough to laugh when she put on a red bathrobe and pretended to be Mary Magdalene. Alice was crazy and funny in those years, playing the part of the angry Pharisee or, more often, demanding to be Jesus. We could do this late into the night, so that we’d stop to brush our teeth and Elizabeth would return with her big hair out, and we sang “Stop (in the Name of Love)” as the Apostles.
In my mother’s absence, I had continued adding to the corkboard, pinning a note up each time I sighted the bear. Last night she’d come over the top of the hill like a dream. In the twilight she looked smaller than she actually was, and colored a black so deep she was blue, moving so smooth she was water. The time before that, she’d been snuffling in the compost, a couple hundred yards down the road. She’d buried her nose deep in the slimy noodles and swiped melon rinds with her dinner-plate paws. Then she was a color just darker than the trees when they were wet. She turned and rolled past the crest of the hill with her hair matted back in the wind, too far away to make a sound.
Since I’d first noticed the bear in our front yard a week ago, I’d dreamt almost every night of being carried off by her, waking up with my hot cheek pressed against her fur. According to the Encyclopedia of Wildlife in the Halifax Free Library, she could weigh up to five hundred pounds, run thirty miles per hour, and swim rivers. She was incredible. The first time I’d seen her, Mom and I had been driving up the hill back to our house, when her shape appeared at the edge of the field, between the trees and all the wet green leaves.
“Look!” I whispered and jerked the stick shift down into park.
“What?” Mom yelped, then pressed her forehead against the foggy window. “Is that—”
For a minute I couldn’t imagine what she was. I couldn’t see her snout, just her enormous shoulders moving up and down like a seesaw. We’d see rabbits all the time flashing across the field, and every once in a while deer flipping their white tails up and disappearing into the woods, but never a bear. In those first moments seeing her I imagined she was something from out of time and space, something so huge and powerful she appeared only as a furry mountain of muscle. When my brain put a name to her I whispered it—“Bear!”—and said it over and over in my head. Bear. Bear. Bear.
I switched off the heater. It was silent inside the car. Elizabeth pressed her nose to the glass and made two little mushroom clouds of steam against the window. “Wow,” she whispered.
My mother is beautiful when she is awestruck.
Three days ago, my mother Elizabeth packed a little plastic green suitcase and said she and her boss Mr. Jackson would be at a conference for the weekend. She had packed a couple of her nicer skirts and old thinning T-shirts to sleep in. The next day the answering machine blinked red with a call from Mr. Jackson. I didn’t listen to it, since I already knew what he would be asking. I went to work as usual, refilled all the coffee cups in the diner and washed the cheeseburger cheese off the thick ceramic plates, came home to an empty house, cooked pork-n-beans, called my little sister Alice, and went to sleep. Each night before I fell asleep I traced the moon out my window with a finger, then rolled onto my side and looked toward the crest of the hill, which looked like the dark heavy side of a dinosaur, the grass like tufts of belly hair.
On the second day I called my sister Alice about it, who lives in New York City, where she is an “actress.”
“She’s gone,” I said.
Alice made the sound of a careening airplane with her lips. “Mama was a rolling stone,” she said. She can get really obnoxious.
I sighed and for a minute or two we listened to the hiss on the line. I took the time to count the cans of beets on the pantry shelf. “Is it lonely there?” she asked.
“Mmm,” I said. “I’m good. Eatin’ beets.”
“You don’t even like beets,” she said.
I balanced en plie, high on both toes, and counted the cans of beans. Twenty two. “Well, there are a couple other things, too. Like potatoes.”
“I’ll mail you a check.”
I nodded and hummed, gazing around the pantry. Alice has zero money. I wanted to tell her what it was like out here alone in the house, at this time of the year in Halifax when the roads go shin-deep with river water, and our field looks wet and gold like the belly of a fish.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“Call me when she gets back.”
Talking to Alice or a couple of the nuns you might think that my mother is drunk all the time, which is not true. That isn’t what an alcoholic is anyway. What she is, is forgetful.
Things just slip her mind. Some days it’s like she never woke up; she turns to me in the kitchen and has turned blind, like an old dog. Like this last year. Quite simply, Mom shut down. She disappeared. When we woke up so early the birds weren’t singing yet, her bedroom was already empty. As we finished breakfast she wandered in the backdoor, and when we asked her where she’d been she smiled in a watery way, like she was having trouble maintaining her balance. It was as though she stopped hearing us. It was too much for Alice. She was gone.
I rifled through my mother’s drawers. She had left almost everything, even her lucky necklaces, though her wallet was missing and her boots, of course. I fluffed her pillows, beat them flat and fluffed them again. I considered the cans in our basement fallout shelter, examined the map on the wall distributed by Yankee Nuclear Power Plant to every town resident on the first of the year: five concentric circles spreading out from the plant like pond ripples, from deep forest green to safe-zone lime. For the first time I noticed that Mom had fixed a little clownfish sticker to where our house was, and now its fin was peeling off, paddling its way through dark green waters. I scrubbed the counters hard and made up prayers as I have been taught to do.
Our Father, who art in heaven. My mother Elizabeth Horowitz is in utmost need of your assistance. Please relay to her the information that she is being an idiot and should return to her daughter. Her daughter and her home, her house, etc. Her daughter will get a dog and they will laugh at the jokes on popsicle sticks and swim in the ocean and all will be well and all will be healed. Amen.
“It’s funny,” said my mother from a kitchen chair once, with her boots up on the table. “When you get mad, you clean.” She had been trying to make a point. My mother always wears these heavy Frye boots that clomp and smack against the wood of the porch every time she comes home. She was the only mother at St. Mary’s who picked up her daughters in cowboy boots, waving her big hands at us. She was the only mother who spilled things on her shirtfront and still wore the shirt. She was the only mother who was missing teeth, who swore in front of her boss, whose eyes went flat for days at a time and who went wandering in the woods.
For a few years my mother was involved with protesters against the nuclear power plant, who believed that of all the various signs that could denote the end of life as we knew it, a mushroom-humped plant so old it had a visible crack down the middle of its reactor was definitely in the lead. They were fond of talking about the pile of radioactive waste the plant had produced, which they said was “five stories high.”
This made me imagine an apartment complex of neon-green waste, with a door and windows. A couple times, right after I got my license, Alice and I would drive slowly by the plant limits, which ended a good half-mile out from the facility and were lined with chain-link, barbed-wire fencing. When we slowed down to 3 mph and Alice leaned across my lap to look closer, we still couldn’t see any neon-green pile of goop. “Maybe it’s underground,” I whispered the third time we’d come by. “Maybe it’s right under our noses!” Alice shrieked in a rush of eleven-year-old adrenaline. I reached over to pinch her side so she screamed and didn’t talk to me for a mile and a half.
Elizabeth’s protest career involved what they called “die-ins,” in which several dozen people would gather outside the chain-link fence, and then when the test sirens went off, pretend to die. When Elizabeth first introduced this idea to us, Alice asked, “Do you pretend to die, like gag and stumble? Or do you just lie down?”
Elizabeth frowned. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it.”
I staggered towards her. “Help,” I croaked. “The…raaaa…dee…ay shunnn.”
“I’m melting!” screeched Alice, always the diva, sinking to the ground with her arms flung helplessly over her head.
Elizabeth laughed, the kind of full-on adult laugh you’d kill as a kid to hear out of your parents. A few days later we came home to her hurling junk out of our basement window. Elizabeth is a strong, hard-biceped woman who can throw one full paint can in each hand, and they were coming out fast. When we came halfway down the stairs we saw that she had covered a wall with makeshift plank-and-brick shelving, and lined them with cans of beans and beets. Over the next couple weeks it became a full-fledged fallout shelter, guided by her activist friends until it was haphazard but loaded, complete with a Mason jar full of potassium tablets, ten cans of Fluff, silver emergency blankets, and an old Moxie box of steak knives and two baseball bats. In the corner, next to a foot-high stack of batteries, the Yankee Nuclear Emergency Radio reported the weather in a monotonous male voice. Worst of all were the disposable toilets that Elizabeth got from a mail-order catalog, which looked like nothing more than plastic bags you could hang over a seatless folding chair.
After a little bit Elizabeth let us play down there, and for a couple days Alice and I had fun sitting under the stairs pretending the apocalypse had come. We were well-versed in the assured drama of the Second Coming, which Alice argued would look something like the “Thriller” video, while I believed it would begin with animals beginning to speak á la Doctor Doolittle. We debated the order in which we’d eat the food.
“Fluff first,” said Alice, “to counteract the radiation.”
“Fluff last,” I said. “It will never go bad.”
“Neither will beans,” said Alice, and sensing my dissent, switched the subject. “How long do you have to stay in a fallout shelter?”
At the time I’d told her a couple weeks, tops. Our house is so deep in the wet woods that we use candles during storms. When it snows, we three dig ourselves out swift as wolves, using only shovels. When the power goes out and the roads pile up we are untouchable. I thought, no one could find us. Nothing could reach us. That was before we learned about half-lives in an algebra word problem, when I realized that to avoid being flooded by radiation, one could come back out in ten thousand years, and when we did, we’d be living on the shore of Lake Karachay.
I set up my guard on the porch. I’d been hoping tonight the bear would get close enough for me to see her claws, which I imagined might look something like the most fearful fingernails in the world. A couple days ago she’d come closer to the house, where our patchy flower garden was. She didn’t even seem to notice the house, her head rumbling along close to the ground, nose trailing something I couldn’t see and couldn’t hear through the double-paned glass. After she lumbered away over the hill I swung open the screen door and listened, trying to hear the sounds that had been filling her ears, wondering if it was the whippoorwill that drove her away, or the sound of the creek bubbling up with rainwater.
I leaned back in the rocking chair. I had everything I needed: cordless phone ready on the railing, jar of Fluff and a spoon, a wide-bottom pan and a spatula. There was absolute silence over the field. From where I sat the scoop of the Big Dipper arched over the porch roof and the moon hung way out over the mountains, just a fingernail sliver.
An owl hooted.
I imagined all the places Elizabeth could have run away to. There was an abandoned, mildew-chomped house halfway between here and Lake Champlain that we’d once pulled the car over near. Elizabeth had flung her winter coat over the glass on the first-floor windowsill and crawled through. I stood outside and listened to her pull the furniture across the floor to make a path. “Reesie!” she called. “Baby, this is wild.”
And there was the Stone Head beach, where she’d taken me before Alice was born, where she had dropped me. She had dropped me and I had washed out to sea, below the waves so that I could look up and watch them roaring over me in silence. Elizabeth had not let the lifeguard touch me.
She fished me out with one arm, an arm that wrapped me up tight and sudden. You are saved, she whispered to me later, as I fell asleep in the car. We are saved.
I pulled the afghan closer around my shoulders. It was now almost entirely dark.
At eight-thirty, her usual time, Alice called. She had gotten a bit part in a Costco commercial. “I’m supposed to swipe this roll of toilet paper at the check-out, see the price, and go, ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!’” she said, way too loud. I clicked her into speakerphone and balanced the phone on the railing. In the rising wind, the air felt wet and charged, slick petals from the flower garden sticking to the porch rails, flapping in a growing wind.
“Is that too Meg Ryan?” she asked. “Listen to this one: I can’t bee-LIEVE it!”
“Way too Meg Ryan.”
“Is Mom there?”
I slipped my boots off and flattened my bare feet against the wet boards. It wasn’t too cold. I rocked back onto my heels and then onto my toes. “No, Al.”
I opened my mouth but looked out into the field instead. Rain was starting softly now, as though a hand were guiding it all the way to the ground. I knew by tonight it would be punching our roof with its fists, conjuring up thunder that sounded like a whole fleet of planes breaking the sound barrier. At the edge of the woods, something moved.