When I was fifteen, my mother, in late fall, sold our house in the center of town and moved us to a much smaller place in the mountains, almost a forty minute ride into the city. All summer long she and her boyfriend Derek had searched the want ads, rode dusty back roads, checked basements and attics for leaks, and argued together, late into the night, on whether or not my mother should place a bid on the house she liked.
Derek pointed out that she wouldn't be right around the corner from his house anymore, but she replied that while he lived on a quiet side street, she lived on the main road and, like him, wanted to live in a place where gravel trucks and eighteen wheelers wouldn't be rattling her living room window panes before the sun was even fully above the horizon. He pointed out that there were other houses off the main road right in town. She said nothing.
Derek tried reminding her that she would have to drive me to school every day since we would be living outside the distance agreed upon by the school districts; my mother countered with the fact that she did this already since Emma Willard, the private school my father--who lived seven states away in a house at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico--insisted that I attend, was right on the way to her office at the hospital.
Derek just shrugged his shoulders, and my mother didn't use her home field advantage at the time that she hadn't heard any offers or proposals from him about consolidating households. To her, and everybody else, it was obvious that even after nine years of dating, Derek still liked things the way they were, and Rita, my mother, although I knew she was unhappy with the arrangement, never pushed him for more of a commitment.
The house we left behind was a large, two storied farmhouse with four bedrooms. The roof leaked, and the basement was always wet. Most of the hardwood flooring was splintered and cracked almost beyond repair.
One of the worst things about the house was its huge, drafty bathroom. It was just off the kitchen, shared an inner wall with the dining room, and opened up to a small sitting room. Clearly, the bathroom had been added to the house only when indoor plumbing became truly affordable. The bathtub was chipped and stained beyond repair while the sink's ancient fixtures dripped continuously with a mind numbing persistence no matter how many times the plumber was called in to fix them.
Throughout the house, there were windows with jagged cracks in them which caused us to keep their outside storm windows pulled down even during the hottest weeks of the summer lest the inside windows go to pieces if we pulled up their sashes. And no matter how hard or often we painted the walls and ceilings water spots and patches of mold and ancient mildew would reappear within weeks of our putting away the paint cans and washing out our brushes. Besides all this, the house was perched on the side of a main road, the front porch almost touching the highway. Rounding the rising bend in the road just beyond our house, the gravel trucks, from the mining pits at the center of town, would fling back dirt, dust, and chunky bits of gravel at our home. Rita grew tired of never being able to open the front door or the windows to the summer breezes without having to wipe the film of grime off the coffee and side tables, shake out the throw rugs, beat the upholstery, and launder the curtains afterwards.
But, even more than that, Rita was sick of her nosy neighbors' frowning looks, from their front porches or back steps where they always seemed to be conveniently perched, no matter how early in the morning she, still dressed in her night shirt, walked Derek out to his truck to kiss him good-bye after the occasional nights when he stayed over.
Rita never said this old fashioned censure bothered her, but I knew it did. I could tell by the way she banged the back door shut.
Our new house was located almost at the top of Berlin Mountain at the end of a twisting dirt road with gigantic pot holes and strategically placed boulders to ensure a jouncing, jolting half-mile ride to our door. The house consisted of two bedrooms, not much bigger than large walk-in closets, a small living room, an even smaller kitchen, and a tiny bathroom.
Yet, even on that cold, drizzling November day when we moved in, I knew what had captured my mother's fancy--the picture windows, located throughout the house, which looked out on the wilderness. The views from those windows were glorious. Throughout all the years I lived in that house, I always felt, no matter which window I was staring out of at the time, as if I were standing in front of some diorama at the Museum of Natural History of some prehistoric, long-lost world, where there was an ordained order even in the seeming chaos of all that primordial destruction and resurrection.
In the morning as I sat eating breakfast, there was no more reading at the table or trying to catch up on homework for me because I would spend those few early morning moments of each day just staring out that kitchen window across from the table at a small beaver pond with a huge lodge in its center. The trees around the water's perimeter were scarred or broken from the beaver's work, and the still water would reflect back the sky--blue or gray or dazzling white, depending on the weather.
Rita loved the place.
I never invited my friends from high school to come home with me, but my childhood friends, from when I lived in town and went to the local grammar and middle schools, would come in cars, borrowed from parents or older siblings, and bring new friends they'd met on the track team or from the pep band. They would be carrying six packs of beer and bottles of Boone's Cherry Berry Wine, and we would take the overgrown paths behind my house and hike up to an old abandoned fire tower, anchored to an outcropping of rocks, at the top of the mountain about a half mile from my home. Most of the time, we drank, told stupid stories, and laughed, but, now and again, when the sun was just beginning to set or a chill wind would catch us by surprise on an unbearably hot summer day, we would sit for a time in silence.
On sleepy late summer Sunday afternoons, Noel, my boyfriend at the time, and I would hike up there alone, and we would strip off our shirts and rest our backs against an outcropping of cool rocks overshadowed by some huge elms. Noel would kiss my mouth, unbutton my jeans, and slide his hand down into my underpants, the white cotton kind my mother bought me whenever it went on sale at K-mart.
My mother never asked me what we did up there alone. Rita believed in private time. Besides, neither of us liked to talk much. Instead, when we were alone and darkness fell around us, we usually sat comfortably together reading while eating dinner with only the slightest bits of conversation scattered here and there like the first snow flakes of the season--my need for new sneakers, Rita's sighting a Blue Heron on her walk, should we have pizza for dinner tomorrow.
During the holidays, when I would go to visit my father, who by that time worked as the Head of Oncology at Tampa General Hospital, he would ask me all kinds of questions about my mother. Was she still working full-time for Hospice as a visiting nurse? Was she still seeing Derek? Were they ever going to get married? Did she plan on buying a new truck? Was she happy in the new house?
What was strange about this was that Rita didn't leave my father; it was the other way around. But, he still wanted to know all about her as if he could understand her better through someone else's observations. Nina, my father's new wife, tried to change the subject, but my father always came back to it and eventually ended up asking if Rita ever talked or asked about him.
As to Derek - my mother rarely talked to me about him. Once, just after they started seeing each other, she asked me if I liked him.
“What do you think of him?” she asked while she poured me a glass of orange juice. Derek had just left.
“He's nice enough,” I replied as I cut into my stack of pancakes with a fork.
“Nice enough,” my mother said, “will just have to do.”
I looked up at her, and she smiled.
But, Derek didn't love my mother. I knew that. I think she knew that, too. He was in love with her best friend, Emily, but Emily was married, at the time.
Whenever Emily and her husband Rick came for dinner or to watch a video or just to hang out, Derek always sat next to her on the couch, at the kitchen table, or on the front porch steps. They worked together at the local sawmill. They'd grown up together. They'd even dated for awhile.
Derek met my mother through Emily when Emily's mother was dying of brain cancer. Rita was Mrs. Rushton's nurse. Derek had come over one afternoon with some invoices from the mill which needed to be straightened out. The Valentes, the owners of the mill, had told Emily that she should stay home and take care of her mother and that they would set her up with a computer system, so she wouldn't have to come into work every day. Emily and Rita were having a cup of tea together at the time when Derek knocked at the back door.
Rita was pretty. She had green eyes, shoulder-length light brown hair, full breasts, and nice legs. She was small, much smaller than dark haired, small-breasted, thin-waisted, long-legged Emily who was almost six feet tall--the same height as Derek.
Derek asked my mother to have dinner with him. At first, I think it was to spite Emily, to show her that he was free, that she had no hold over him, that he could do as he pleased. But when he discovered that my mother would not nag or scold him or call him to account for his actions or affections, he continued to see her. He took advantage of her silence, just as surely as I did.
Soon after we moved from town, Derek stopped coming up the mountain to our house. He complained about the ride, so, for a time, my mother drove the ten miles down to his house to see him. I said I would be all right and that she should stay over with him. But, she didn't want to leave me alone, so, for months and months and months, just after midnight, she would leave Derek's warm bed to drive those ten long, lonely miles back home to me. It was only when the weather was bad, the roads slick and the snow swirling down, that she stayed the entire night with him.
On those nights, I would lie in bed and listen to the wind as it seemed to gather momentum when it banked and howled about the house. I would listen to the sound of the logs falling away from each other in the wood stove along with the occasional pops of the pine knots. I would listen to the sound of the freezing rain, mixed with snow, pelting those huge plate glass windows. I listened to my own breathing.
I would imagine Derek laying down on his bed with my mother, unbuttoning her jeans and helping her pull them down. I would imagine him kissing her breasts, her stomach, her thighs. I would imagine him pushing himself into her, just as he did to me again and again whenever I would come to him.
At seventeen, I believed myself to be a grown-up and what two consenting adults agreed to was no one else's business. What did it matter that there was a twenty-five year age difference between us? What did it matter if my mother believed that man, just as she had believed of my father, was faithful to her? His body fit mine, and I eagerly raised my hips to feel him deep inside.
In time, Emily left her husband and moved in with Derek. I went away to college in a distant city, where all night long I could hear the sounds of other voices, the screaming sirens of fire trucks and ambulances, car doors slamming, music playing. Like my father, I studied medicine, watching cells miraculously split predictably, examining the consecrated tangle of functioning nerves, and controlling the chaos of disease. I found myself too busy to visit Rita very often.
And, then, she disappeared. One January night, with the snow slanting down against those picture windows and blanketing everything in silence, Rita went out for a walk past the beaver pond with the silver birches at its edge, past the black water which the snow flakes fell into and disappeared, and past the fire tower, where the searchers found the red wool scarf, which I'd sent to her just a few weeks before as a Christmas gift, caught on a tree branch.
In the house, she'd left all the lights burning. There'd been a fire going in the wood stove, and the radio, tuned to a country and western station, played out one requested song after another about cheating and heartbreak and loneliness. She had just baked a bread and it sat unsliced on the counter. Her old cat, Tommy, slept curled up in a ball on her pillow. The supper dishes had been washed up and put away. A blooming raspberry colored rose in a cut glass vase sat on her night stand, and her mail lay unopened on the coffee table.
Because of the condition the house was left in, the sheriff dared not say it was a suicide. He had dogs and neighbors and members of the local VFW post searching for her for over three weeks. They found nothing. And when the spring came, melting the five foot high snow banks, no young boys, exploring the woods and telling tales, found her body crumpled at the foot of the mountain or one of the small ravines. In the summer, no hikers discovered her decayed and rotting jacket, sweater, and pants covering her badly decomposed body just off the trail. In the fall, no hunters ever found her skeleton, with its hank of hair, twisted through with growths from the underbrush.
Rita had just wandered away.
Now, when the snows come, I often ask my lover David to spend the night with me. He calls his wife--my best friend--and tells her that he won't be coming home from the hospital. He tells her that they're short staffed, one of the residents is having trouble getting in because of the snow. He tells her that there's been an accident out on Route 2 and he's needed in surgery.
In the quiet of the living room as I pour David another glass of wine, I can hear Ellen's voice, distant but still familiar, over the phone, just before he hangs up. She tells him she loves him.
After David falls asleep, curled up on his side with his back to me, I get up and ring my mother's number, which even now, a year later, I haven't had disconnected. I listen to the sound of her voice as she asks the caller to please leave a name, a number, and a brief message after the beep. Then, I listen to the silence. After all, what could I ever tell her?
words: Maria C. Pollack, New York
photo: Inge Flessa-Glauner, Germany (touch-the-blue)