I stood there in the front yard, at the bottom of the stairs, feeling for the first time in a long while that things were completely out of my control. How had I let this happen? Years of CDs and sweaters, interchangeable gifts, and now one set of picnic ware and I totally lose the upper hand. It seemed impossible.
Dexter walked up the front steps to the door, Monkey bursting forth and bustling around, sniffing at the bags, until they both went inside and the door slammed shut behind them. Something told me, as I stood there, that I should just turn around, go back to my car, and drive home as fast as possible, then lock every door and window and hunker down to protect my dignity. Or my sanity. So many times it seemed like there were chances to stop things before they started. Or even stop them in midstream. But it was even worse when you knew at that very moment that there was still time to save yourself, and yet you couldn’t even budge.
The door swung open again, and there was Monkey, panting. Above him, dangling past the doorframe from the left, was one hand, fingers gripping a bright blue fork, wiggling it around suggestively, as if it was some kind of signal, spelling out messages in supersecret spy code. What was it saying? What did it mean? Did I even care anymore?
The fork kept wiggling, beckoning. Last chance, I thought.
I sighed out loud, and started up the steps.
There were certain ways to tell that my mother was getting close to finishing a novel. First, she’d start working at all hours, not just her set schedule of noon to four. Then I’d start waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of her typewriter, and look out my window to see the light spilling in long, slanting squares from her study onto the side yard. She’d also start talking to herself as she wrote, under her breath. It wasn’t loud enough to really make out what she was saying, but at times it sounded like there were two people in there, one dictating and one just rushing to get it down, one clackety-clacking line at a time. And finally, the most revealing sign of all, always a dead giveaway: when she hit her stride, and the words came so easily she had to fight to hold them back long enough to get them on the page, she always put on the Beatles, and they sang her to her epilogue.
I was on my way down for breakfast in the middle of July, rubbing my eyes, when I stopped at the top of the stairs and listened. Yep. Paul McCartney, his voice high, something from the early years.
The lizard room door opened behind me and Chris came out, in his work uniform, carrying a few empty jars of baby food, one of the daily diet staples of the lizards. He cocked his head to the side, shutting the door behind him. “Sounds like that album with the Norwegian song on it,” he said.
“Nope,” I told him, starting down the stairs. “It’s that one where they’re all in the window, looking down.”
He nodded, and fell into step behind me. When we reached the kitchen we saw the bead curtain was drawn across the entryway to the study, and beyond it Paul’s voice had given way to John Lennon’s. I walked over and peered through the curtain, impressed by the stack of paper on the desk beside her and one burned-out candle. She had to have had two hundred pages, at least. When she was rolling, nothing could stop her.
I turned back into the kitchen and pushed aside two empty cans of Ensure-I was determined not to clean up after Don, although I was tested daily-before fixing myself a bowl of oatmeal with bananas and a big cup of coffee. Then I sat down, my back to the naked woman on the wall, and pulled the family calendar-a freebie from Don Davis Motors, featuring Don himself smiling in front of a shiny 4Runner-off the wall.
It was July 15. In two months, give or take a few days, I would be packing up my two suitcases and my laptop and heading to the airport, and seven hours later I would arrive in California to begin my life at Stanford. There was so little written between now and then; even the day I left was hardly marked, except for a simple circle in lipstick I’d done myself, as if it was a big deal only to me.
“Oh, man,” Chris grumbled from in front of the fridge. I glanced over to see him holding an almost empty bag of bread: all that was left were the two end pieces, which I suppose have a real name, but we’d always called the butts. “He did it again.”
Don had lived alone so long that he was having trouble grasping the concept that other people actually came after him and, sometimes, used the same products he did. He thought nothing of finishing off the last of the orange juice, then sticking the empty carton back in the fridge, or taking the last of the usable bread and leaving the butts for Chris to deal with. Even though Chris and I had both asked him, oh so politely, to write things down when he used them up (we kept a list on the fridge, labeled GROCERIES NEEDED) he either forgot or just didn’t care.
Chris shut the fridge door a bit enthusiastically, shaking the rows of Ensures that were stacked there. They clanked against one another, and one toppled off, falling back between the fridge and the wall with a thunk.
“I hate those things,” he grumbled, stuffing the bread butts into the toaster oven. “And, God, I just bought this bag. If he’s sucking down those Ensures, why does he need to eat my bread anyway? Isn’t that a complete meal in itself?”
“I thought so,” I said.
“I mean,” he went on as the music picked up in the next room, all yeah-yeah-yeahs, “all I’m asking for is a little consideration, you know? Some give-and-take. It’s not too much to ask, I don’t think. Is it?”
I shrugged, looking again at that lipstick circle. Not my problem.
“Remy?” My mother’s voice drifted from the study, the typewriter noises stopping for a second. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” I called back to her.
“Bring me some coffee?” The typewriter started up again. “With milk?”
I got up and poured a cup almost to the top, then dumped in skim milk until it reached the rim: one of the only things that we had in common, completely, was taking our coffee the same way. I walked over to the entryway to the study, balancing her cup and mine, and pushed aside the curtain.
The room smelled like vanilla, and I had to move a row of mugs-most half full, their rims stained with the pearly pink that was her “house lipstick”-aside to make room. One of the cats was curled up on the chair next to her, and hissed at me halfheartedly as I slid it out of the way so I could sit down. Next to me was a stack of typewritten pages, neatly aligned. I was right: she was really cooking. The number of the page on the top was 207.
I knew better than to start talking until she was done with whatever sentence, or scene, she was in the midst of writing. So I pulled page 207 off the stack and skimmed it, folding my legs beneath me.