We left the listeners behind.
They whisper in the space between dreams; but for that, they are silent.
You ask, “Who’s there?” and all you hear is listening.
Listening to Mama tape up boxes. Listening to Mama clean the refrigerator. Listening to Mama drop the keys on the counter for the landlord to pick up.
Mama hitched the almost-four-year-old me up on her hip and we stepped outside to the tune of silence swelling backwards like we were clinging to the spout of a giant water pitcher as a cosmic hand poured all the water out.
The nasal buzz of window units quenched Mama’s thirst for noise as she lugged me to the car and buckled me snugly into my seat. I dutifully sat back and lifted my chin while she made sure the chest buckle was up high enough. %% The sun shone just as dutifully, but for different reasons, I suspect. / I wish I could say it was a sunny day to highlight the irony, or it was a gloomy day to illustrate how congruent the weather and events were, but I just don’t recall noticing. %%
“God has a plan for everything.”
“You’re so young; you’ll find someone.”
“It was for the best.”
“Well, at least you’re young and you can get married again.”
“Go back to work, it will distract you.”
“Oh, it’s too bad you’re not pregnant. Lily could use a sibling.”
“God needed him more.”
“So what have you been doing?”
“Of course you’ll want to get married again—you have your whole life ahead of you.”
“You can talk to him any time you want. He hears you.”
“You know my dog just died.”
“What do you think—a year or two and you’ll be all over it?”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“So what are you going to do with his things?”
“At least he died in the prime of his life, and you know, before you two any marital problems.”
“What are your plans?”
“So, do you think you’ll get married again?”
“Lily’s so young; she probably won’t remember him.”
At least there had been Funeral Potatoes.
“Too tight?” Mama asked, looking straight into my eyes with her fingers under the shoulder straps. I shook my head from side to side in one-hundred-eighty-degree sweeps. Of course it was too tight, but the words wouldn’t form in my mouth until we started to drive, and even then I would decide to say nothing.
My car seat was in the center, but Mama had buckled me in from the passenger side so she had to walk around the car to the driver’s side. I followed her with my eyes, then glanced at our apartment window where the curtains the half-shaded windows glared at our desertion.
The Minuet in G sounded from the depths of Mama’s purse and she reached for her phone.
“May I talk to Seth Bailey?”
“What do you need?”
“I need to speak to Mr. Bailey.”
“I’m sorry but he’s dead.”
“Oh. We’ll update our files.”
All of our things, everything we didn’t sell or give away, filled the car—the trunk, the passenger’s seat, the floor panels beneath my feet. The way that sounds, “filled the car,” makes it sound like a lot because it was filling, but it was a car. Not a truck, not a moving van, a car. And most of it would end up in the fort my grandfather built my mother in their backyard. I got to bring all the little things from the car to my mother and I felt so important because I got to help.
We were going to New Zealand. What was a New Zealand? Who knew, but that’s where we were going and I was excited even though daddy couldn’t come. It was the dream my mother worked very hard to persuade my father of, and if she felt guilty living the dream without him I couldn’t tell. Probably because guilt wasn’t part of my three-and-a-half-year-old vocabulary, but she seemed just as excited as me and that’s saying something when you’re competing with a three-year-old for enthusiasm.
It also says something that she looked startled and wiped her eyes whenever I came upon her alone.
Two years in New Zealand gave Mama her PhD in linguistics and gave me an accent my cousins made fun of when we got back to the States. What followed were three adjunct posts at three different universities. The students were lazy at the first school, and the next one had too much drama among the faculty, and the third one had squeaky floors—very annoying to listen every day, apparently. And that’s nothing to the number of apartments we went through. Some smelled bad, some had too much water pressure, others not enough. One landlord called to see if we were having toilet problems because there was a leak downstairs, and she freaked out about him prying into matters that didn’t concern him. She liked to joke that we never had to do any real cleaning because we were never there long enough to get the place dirty, but really, Mama was just looking for something she’d never find. She’d have been dissatisfied with heaven if my father weren’t there. And so we lived out of two boxes for her, one box for me, and a suitcase each. She had eight blouses, five pairs of pants, two skirts, and two pairs of shoes, plus underwear. I had a little more because I spilled more. We did exactly two loads of laundry every week. Whenever we moved, we’d just sell our furniture rather than take it with us, and it took us less than two hours to vacate a place.
So there we were playing our parts in the play we’d rehearsed a dozen times, me folding my clothes and my mother neatly tucking them into my suitcase, her carefully lowering the photo album into the bottom of the box and taking the newspaper-wrapped dishes from me and placing them on top. These were the rosary beads for my mother’s ritual penance. For what, you ask? She couldn’t say. But if you were to ask me, which you are because I’m the one telling this story, I think she was punishing herself for weakness. She understood weakness in weak people, but she couldn’t tolerate it in people who were supposed to be strong.
Mama loaded the suitcases in the trunk of our little blue car, put a box on the passenger seat, one behind it on the back seat, buckled me into my booster seat, and then barricaded me in with the last box, her purse on the floor at my feet. This was a BIG MOVE to another town, another university, not just a LITTLE MOVE to another apartment.
“Where are we going, Mama?” I asked.
“Athens, Georgia, the University of Georgia.”
“Do they have soccer and gymnastics and piano?”
“I’m sure they do.”
“Can I have a birthday party?”
“Lily, your birthday’s not for six months. Let’s worry about it then.”
“But I have to make friends first.”
“Sure, honey. We’ll see.”
The first thing I noticed about Athens was the bright pink Mama’s Fine Southern Food restaurant, and then all the black people. Seeing that much color reminded me of Wellington, and I guess Mama thought the same thing.
“It feels like home, doesn’t it, Lily?”
I nodded inside my head, and just looked around. It looked like a place I could like and I dared to hope my mother felt the same.
I thought my mother was lost when she stopped in the driveway of a little yellow house with a white picket fence, lawn, peach tree, house numbers, and everything. I expected her to ask me to hand her the GPS in her purse, but then I saw it in its bracket on the dash and saw that we’d arrived at our destination.
“What are we doing here?”
“Well, we’re going to get out and take our boxes inside, then we’ll run to Ikea and get a couple of beds and a kitchen table.”
The house was a sallow yellow with tow wide dark windows symmetrically placed on either side of a dark door, giving it the appearance of a sickly friend whom you’d neglected to visit in the hospital and is surprised to see you. The peach tree was half dead. The outer wall of the mudroom was plywood, with an inner wall of styrofoam. The carpet piling was worn down to the backing in clearly defined lanes of traffic. Mama sat me down at a piano that was so badly out of tune that the man we hired to tune it got mad because of how long it took. But, like those girls who go for the tortured souls that need saving, Mama was a sucker for potential, and she was delighted with how much fixing the house needed. I was delighted with a house.
This was the part of our play that I loved—unpacking, setting my My Little Ponies in the windowsill of my little room, stacking my books on the floor. It feels good to have a place where you can leave things; where you can make a mark. Like carving your name on a diner booth. It’s a primal instinct. Even homeless people like to have the one place they always go back to where they can leave tokens of themselves. A person needs an anchor in the physical world to feel stable. I always felt an urgent itchiness until I could I could free my own tokens of myself from my box and spread them out to fill a space of my own.
Mama peeked in and said, “It looks like we’d have to go all the way to Atlanta for Ikea, so I think we’ll drive around and look for yard sales.” She looked at me. “Lily, please don’t write your name on the wall.”
She didn’t say door, I thought as I peeked under my hand at the letters I had covered as Mama came in my room. I added a little flower to the stem of the y and followed her back out to the car.