The Sleeping Mother
We move through the center of another smudge of a town, past the locked shops and empty parking spaces, the variety store with the old sports pages taped to the windows and the small town clerk’s office.
It’s deep into the summer of 1987 but on that sports page it’s 1960-something and the local high school hockey team has just won the regional finals. I glance at the picture—just a flash of young faces in bulky uniforms, rigidly posed, unsmiling, arms around each other’s shoulders.
“I bet they speak a little French here,” Jeremy says, as he pushes his face closer to the glass. He’s lit by streetlights and I can see that his nice button down shirt is dark with sweat around the shoulders and neck.
He says something about having to work tomorrow, a lunch meeting with a donor and then a pile of paperwork he’s been ignoring for weeks. He pulls back from the glass and says, “Everybody loves the underdog.”
The car engine is running, the doors half open. We’ve just left it there in the middle of the street, maybe twenty feet away. I find the spot I’m looking for—a sewer grate on the corner—and spread my legs cowboy style, unzip my pants, and empty my bladder. He’s watching me—I can feel it—but I don’t care.
I close my eyes and hear Jeremy say, “Hurry up.”
But not because he wants to get back to the car. He wants to explore.
It spills past us in magnificently predictable fashion: the small drug store, the undersized library, the squat bar with a single glowing window, and the few taller mill buildings, the top windows boarded closed, the bottom floors rented out to used furniture dealers and bait and tackle shops.
Where are we? I don’t remember exactly. Houlton or Calais or Lubec, one of those Maine border towns. It’s a lot like the town I grew up in and a lot like the one Jeremy grew up in too, in Cape Breton, but I still feel like an intruder here. Those boys from the newspaper are middle-aged men. Most of them probably still live nearby.
Knowing the name of the town might help, because I feel like an intruder in the memory too. Those boys in the newspaper, trying so hard to look adult, they’re old men, just like that, and I’m the middle-aged man, remembering Jeremy up in front of me on the road, frail but cocky as hell, scanning the buildings like he’s searching for a specific thing and he knows it’s just a matter of time.
I’m trying to remember what he said next. I can see him getting further ahead of me, almost running now toward the boarded up movie theater at the end of the street, but the words aren’t there. He says something though. I know that. He’s calling out to the ghosts of the long dead movies, or saying something about the funeral in Cape Breton, or just telling me to hurry up, hurry up.
When we find her later that night I’ll think of him running ahead of me and ask myself, is this what he was looking for?
Gentlemen, she’ll call us, and sightseers.
* * * * *
“This isn’t a promise we’re going to break,” I say. “Right?”
“Right,” Jeremy says.
The pockets of our dirty jeans are empty except for a few Canadian coins, but the gas tank is full, and there’s a bag of potato chips resting on the emergency brake between us. Jeremy has his feet up on the dash, I’m driving, and we’re trying to put some stuff behind us.
“I’ve broken them before,” he adds, “but not now. And not to you.”
He throws out a little grunting sound—languid, cynical—because he knows that no matter how close two people are there’s always something to pull out of the shadows. I didn’t even know he was from Canada until his father died and he asked me, “Want to see where I grew up?”
Was it really just four days ago? Because the memory of that house seems second-hand, as if it were something Jeremy just told me about instead of showed me. From the northern windows you can see the grass becoming jagged cliff face and that’s where I put Jeremy, at the window, watching the Atlantic while people eat and talk downstairs in the narrow kitchen. They’re talking about his dad, and about Jeremy, his ambitions, his escape to Boston. Someone takes out an accordion—I can hear it the first slow, wheezing notes—and the music begins, feet unhurriedly stomping on the wooden floor.
I don’t know how to draw a line from that house to all those things I know about him. Even now I find myself getting lost.
“Here we are,” he says. “The center of the world.”
We’ve come to rest at the next intersection. We pause there, ridiculous, waiting for the light to change. Jeremy reaches around on the floor and for a second I think no, not now, you promised, but all he comes up with is the bottle of juice we bought just before the border, and when he finds it, he tips it up to his mouth and swallows the last gulp.
“God that’s good,” he says.
He’s forty-four, twice my age, but he still cries at movies and gets red-faced angry about things he watches on the evening news. He’s given to making beautiful, slurred speeches about the President of the United States when he’s had more than two beers, and although all of that contributed to his two divorces, it’s probably also a big part of why they married him.
When I ask him for more Gaelic he laughs and says, “You must be sick of that by now, Travis.”
“Never,” I say.
“Look at this empty street,” he says, with a gesture out the open window, and then he slides into the other language. The sounds of the words are hard, almost Germanic, but the sentence lilts gently at the end. Each declaration sounds like a question. He’s renaming all of it, the parking meters and brickwork, the sewer grates and locked doors. I don’t understand a word.
“Look out,” he says, “a dog.”
“I see it,” and yes, it is a dog, long and strange and white as a ghost. I don’t know what is until Jeremy says the word.
But the thing is, it’s not a dog at all, and we can see that when I stop the car. “Christ,” I say. “Is it real?”
“I think so,” he says, and we pile out, leaving the doors open, the engine running. He head over and it’s Jeremy who speaks first. “Wake up,” he says. “You don’t know where you are.”
She uncoils to a sitting position and stretches out a hand. Her skin is like paper and there’s blood on her fingernails. Hair a tangled nest. For some reason I don’t take her hand. Instead I crouch down and try to look in her eyes.
The dress is white with small green flowers, wet and mud stained and shapeless as a sack. Jeremy is looking down at us.
“Can you tell us your name?” I ask, and she seems to return from a distant place. Her eyes find me and she says something, but so low and guttural that I don’t understand. Her hand is still outstretched and that’s when I figure out that she’s holding something with her finger and thumb, offering it to us. A twenty dollar bill.
Our headlights transform the whole thing into a performance.
Years later and it’s all vivid nonsense. Jeremy takes the money and then her wrist and tries to lift her up to her feet. She’s barefoot, I notice, and her knees and feet are bloody too. This time I hear her voice clearly. “Stop,” she says. “Let me be.”
He opens his hand and she slumps back into a sitting position.
I stand up and Jeremy offers me the money. I don’t take it, and he pulls it back, and we just stand there, two idiots in the middle of the road. “Drunk,” he says. “I can smell it.”
I look back at the car and allow myself the consideration of an easy escape. It would be simple to just drive around her.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, and then, “I want to go home.”
“Let us help you up then.”
“I can get up my god damned self,” she says, but there’s no malice in it. She laughs. Is she playing with us?
I consider that deep green hill in Cape Breton, and the house with wide open windows, and Jeremy screaming from one of them, out at the ocean. They were still stomping their feet downstairs, faster now, and some of them, the younger ones, were drinking beer in the upstairs hall, and then it was morning and the house was empty and the floorboards wet from windblown salt water.
I think of Jeremy getting up from the floor in Cape Breton, his pale lips and sunburned nose, but why would I recall this and bring it here, into this strange night? There’s nothing to be gained from placing one next to another. Suddenly I’m angry with her, and I say, “Then do it. Get up. I want to see you do it.”
So she does.
* * * * *
“Stay here when you want,” Jeremy says in May, and so I spend most nights at Back Bay apartment, turning the pages of his heavy art books and listening to him talk about French impressionism and the Les Nabis. He admits that he can’t afford the place but he loves to live by the water. His neighbor owns two fastidiously groomed poodles and he often jokes about poisoning them.
We have not known each other long and do not have much of a future. We have this short string of months, this trip, the purest and oddest blend of grief and celebration I can imagine at that early age.
Two months hanging out on the streets and I’m being shown around the Art of the America’s wing after hours. He points out small details, recites dates from memory.
He seems to have the mood of someone dying, a man who has come to terms. He smokes cigarettes and refuses to talk about his job, his past. He likes to criticize the movies we see at the molecular level—this or that minor character, a false moment that caused the rest to collapse—picking them apart to the bone. He watches me eat from square take-out boxes with the satisfaction of a doting housewife
When his father passes in late July he says, “You should go back with me. It’ll be good for you.” I give it five seconds of thought before telling him sure, and now here we are, bringing this woman home. The road is pocked with holes and I drive like I’m walking. Branches scrape the windshield and birds cascade up from the underbrush. I can hear their wings. “This is the way,” she says. “It gets easier.”
She’s in the back seat, leaning up between us. The money, she says, is for the ride. “The hospitality,” she says. “A couple of gentlemen.”
Her forehead is covered with a tiny scratches.
We emerge into a trash strewn field. A washer and dryer, a broken row boat, other debris piled high as treasure. A cabin the color of mud with one side stripped down to yellow insulation foam. The screen door is held open by a two-by-four, but the trees are towering and beautiful above it all, swaying in the wind. “You can pull up over there by the van,” she says, and that’s what I do.
We sit there with the engine running. Should we bring her to the door, deliver her to someone here? “Do you live alone?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
Jeremy hasn’t spoken at all the entire ride from the Main Street to this dirt road. His eyes are closed and his head leaned back, as if listening to something on the radio. His face his red and maybe he’s going to say something in a minute and maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s rehearsing it in his head.
He might not even be thinking about us. Maybe he’s thinking of that place in Cape Breton, his father’s house, but he’s dead and now Jeremy owns it and what can he do with it, all the way up there in the middle of nowhere?
“I don’t want to hear this,” he says. “There’s no reason for me to know it. What can come of it but some presumption about what’s happened? It’s best that we just shut up, don’t you think?”
I don’t think she understands that he’s talking to her. For a second I’m not sure myself. He’s so quiet.
Because she’s smiling and talking about it all being a terrible accident, everything from the trouble in the bar to getting lost, and if she hadn’t have had a cold she wouldn’t have taken that cough medicine with the beer and then she wouldn’t have even needed us. “Also Danny should have given me a ride home but he was being such a dick. Have you ever had a drink thrown in your face? That’s one of the best ways to get a man angry with you.”
She seems to be finished but then she starts up again and I think that maybe she doesn’t want to leave us. There’s another road in here—I notice it off behind the cabin—and it looks like the easier route, but it’s also closer to the cabin. There’s a light on in the window. She says, “You’re so kind to me. You rescued me, is what you did. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” he says.
“I don’t think so,” she says, and suddenly I think that she might be making fun of him. The whole thing suddenly seems like a joke she’s played on us.
I don’t know what to do so I try to shut them out and listen to the sound of the engine and it seems like this could go on forever, except that the sky is changing from black to grey, and another light has gone on in the house.
I’ve never heard birds like that, flying all around you, and it’s beautiful and terrifying, not just the sound of them, but the fact that you have no idea what they really look like—just blurs in the dark—or if you are killing them or not, and you can’t describe that feeling of them all around you, even years later when you are a middle-aged man, educated and well-liked, a person who is expected to talk about his past with fluency.
* * * * *
The usual poverty, yes, but also this: two carved wooden chairs on the small porch, a wooden crib between them; a thousand sea shells lining the porch railing; the smell of rosemary and oregano when the door opens. A woman holding a baby in the crook of one arm and a look of fear in her face until she notices who it is and what we’ve returned to her.
The baby is crying and the woman shushes it. We’re intruders now, but the woman with us—the woman I’m increasingly seeing as the person we’ve saved—invites us inside. “No, no,” Jeremy says, and we part so she can move up the steps and hug the older woman framed by the doorway. She takes the baby and rains kisses on its screaming face.
“I’ve been on a journey,” she tells it.
Then she disappears into the house and that’s the last I ever see of her.
“I was worried,” the older woman says, “but then I fell asleep on the couch. Is that a sin?”
She really seems to want an answer, but Jeremy just gives her the twenty dollar bill and holds her hand for a moment, gripping it tight, while I turn and look out over the landscape. I’m wondering how easy it will be for us to find our way out of here. “What is this?” she says. “I don’t want any charity.”
“We should go,” Jeremy says.
“I don’t need this,” she says, and Jeremy says something about it being hers anyway, and I’m halfway down the steps. We should listen to our flight instinct but our politeness holds us there, or at least slows us in our escape. Jeremy takes a step down and I think neither of us are looking at her when she says, “I don’t want it. You two, you keep getting her in trouble and you think this is going to make it better.”
"We’re not who you think we are,” I tell her, and my voice sounds too loud. I hear something from inside the house, the woman calling out to her mother.
“We really should go,” Jeremy says.
Halfway back out to the main road I pull over and click the engine off. “We did a good thing,” I say. “We really did.”
“I’m still shaking,” Jeremy says.
“What did she say?” I ask. “The girl.”
“Nothing,” he said, and then, “I think she was just playing with us.” I reach over and uncap the juice and get a dribble on my tongue. “Just once,” he says.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I say, which is a lie. “I wonder about those birds,” I add.
He’s reaching under the seat, pulling out the black plastic bag.
“I think they’re okay,” he says, as he pulls the guts out of the bag: the black tubing borrowed from a bicycle tire, the needs gift wrapped in tinfoil. He sets it all out on his lap and begins to get organized.
“It’s a perfect place,” I say. “I wish we hadn’t come here. We should have gone out the other way.”
He hushes me.
But I say, “We made a promise.”
He does me first, the way he always does, sliding his finger up my arm and then tapping, pushing, probing for exactly the right spot. The needle goes in sideways, painless really, and I know I have a few minutes to say what I need to say before the euphoria glows outward from somewhere deep in my center. I talk to him about the party at the house, his yelling my name out the window and then the Gaelic while I stumbled into the field and vomited. The house felt so big behind me, that one ocean facing side with scaling paint from the wind, and I thought about the funeral, Jeremy’s father in that boxy suit, the old ladies with their powder sugar cookies and a few old men in the corner telling stories as long as trains.
And then I am saying, “We did it. We really did. We did rescue her. What would have happened if we hadn’t been there?”
He lets his head fall to my shoulder, his hand to my stomach. “Don’t talk. Don’t talk,” he says.
But I’m motormouthing now, stroking his hair and trying to tell him about everything. He’s shaking his hand gently, because he doesn’t want any of it. He just wants to be warm, and then fall asleep for a few hours. It’s 1987 and I’m 22 years old, in love with a drug addict, a man twice my age. Sometimes we spoon on his bed, fully dressed, and he tells me that I’m a fool for running away from my hometown, but I can trick myself into thinking of my future as a map unfolded in front of me. I can point my finger there, or there, or there, and then head in that direction. This is what I want to tell him but I don’t.
I’m climbing out of the car. The seventh time and it still turns my stomach inside out. I fold over and wait for it, but it won’t come. There’s a muscle inside that’s fighting back, turning and flipping like a struggling fish, but for some reason I’m happy. We’re heroes, after all, although I think I know what she called us from inside the house. The word sounds like soothsayers, but it’s just sightseers, and I have to laugh, I have to gasp, and then I’m vomiting into the underbrush. Baby vomit, Jeremy likes to call it, just a single heave and a small cough.
We’ll reach Boston tomorrow, making more promises on the way, and when his friends come over later in the week I’ll try to tell them about her, against Jeremy’s best advice. I’m the exotic, after all, the young boy with the doe eyes, and there’s a responsibility to entertain—or maybe just to hold my own, show them I’m more than an ornament. By dessert the story will grow —and I’ll set down my fork across my empty plate and excuse myself, because Jeremy has been gone for a while. I’ll find him in the bathroom with a shoelace tied around his bicep, the shoe thrown in the corner.
“I know, I know,” he’ll say. “I’m being rude to our guests.”
I could stop there, on his grinning face, two fingers raised in a relaxed wave, and remember him that way forever. But I fall backward to his father’s house again, me on his father’s bed and Jeremy against the broken window, yelling at the sea. He’s yelling that he loves me. He wants the whole island to hear it. It seems as if any second he might leap and take flight.
The house is the sixth time for me, the car the seventh and last. I’m young and stupid, but I’ve already made up my mind by the time I return to our dinner guests. They’re smiling and laughing. Isn’t it just like Jeremy to disappear like that?
Someone asks me a question about the woman. The damsel in distress, he calls her.
This is what I want to tell them, what I want to tell Jeremy: when the headlights first find her white body, I do not see a dog at all, not at first, not until Jeremy says the word and she changes and then changes back. I see—I remember—a woman, a girl really, not much older than me, and she’s scared, head turned, looking up at us coming at her fast. She must be thinking that she’s in trouble. How can she know who we are and what’s going to happen?
Jeremy says the word and that’s what she is, just for a second, and then she’s a woman again, but with a different face, smiling, as I crouch down and stare into her eyes. Maybe I’m looking for a sign of that other, frightened person, because it seems impossible that she could just vanish. What happened to her?
This is what I want to tell them—I want it to spill all over the table, rude and repulsive and mystifying—but it’s late and they’re rising to clear the dishes, so I say don’t worry, I’ll take care of it, and let’s do this again really soon.
David Crouse is an award-winning short story writer and teacher. His collection of short fiction, Copy Cats, received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2005 and was nominated for the Pen-Faulkner the following year. A second collection, The Man Back There, was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books and was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Chelsea, Quarterly West, and The Beloit Fiction Journal. His comic book writing has been anthologized in The Darkhorse Book of the Dead, published by Darkhorse Comics.