I had a limo take me to Jersey – a lush green state, Jesus! So this is where spring has been hiding.
The driver’s name was spelled out on a laminated photo ID:
The photo showed a large balding Indian gentleman in a purple suit very like the one he has on today. It must have cost him $100. But he looks good in it.
I am Parth, he said. I will talk-talk to you, talkie-talk. Like, say, why are you coming to this place?
I’m visiting my mother, I said, reluctantly. I thought he was the full clown.
Aggie, my mother, was one of those people who change their names as middle age comes on. She had been Eunice, changed it to Agatha.
Aggie was an Irish girl from Hillside, N. J., intelligent and willful, tough with the help. Her skin was the envy of her daughters (all of whom despised her, and she them) and their daughters. She read all of War and Peace over the course of a summer while she sat with us poolside. Did you ever see that photograph of her in the polka-dot dress, holding a wide-brimmed hat to her head as the wind sweeps across the deck of the Queen Mary? She was beautiful. As she aged, she kept to a beauty regime that did not include exercise.
Oh? And how old is your momma? asked Parth.
She is 90, I replied.
Aggie hated her own mother for doing disreputable things like smoking in public and frequenting speakeasies. But Aggie loved her father, Howard, more than anyone in the world.
Mother often enumerated Howard’s qualities. I remember her sitting with us by the back yard sandbox of our third house. “An inventor, think about that! And, he played baseball, do you know baseball? Second base for Fordham. Who can draw a baseball diamond in the sand? Okay, Alicia, you do it. But most of all, Howard was a thinker; he’d sit down at his desk with all the pieces and study them thoroughly and make up his mind—for instance, that’s how he converted to Catholicism. Now! Who can show me where the second baseman plays?
When do you say ‘mom’ and when do you say ‘mommy’? asked Parth.
If I understand you right, I said, you say ‘mommy’ or ‘mammy’ when you’re young—mam-my!—and then you start saying ‘mom’.
And ‘mother’ is—
—all the time, I said.
I was remembering Howard, how he scratched our backs when he came to our house on Sundays, and how he let us play with his tie clasp, which revealed distended images of ourselves, reflected on a smooth round red glass.
God bless you for visiting your mother-mom, said Parth. That makes you good-good man. You will be blessed. Where you from?
I thought California maybe.
As we rolled along, I took a small capsule from my jacket pocket, held it up to daylight, and popped it into my mouth, like a real Californian, I hoped casually, while Parth eyed me jealously in the rear-view.
I didn’t take ecstasy until I was 59 at an outdoors Green Day concert in Portland (I was selling beer). I didn’t know what the white substance was, but it seemed to me, after a few tabs, to be LSD engineered so that only one outcome was possible. As opposed to the open-ended LSD, which could bring in dark winds from the ends of the earth, the gentle X only brought on an un-moored, free-form loving feeling . . . amazing they can do that.
Have you ever been to California? I asked.
Portland. Very nice wooden buildings.
San Francisco has them too, I said.
When we arrived at Aggie’s apartment, I took my bag from the trunk, tipped Mr. Semalayen a big tip and walked away quickly. I wanted to put some space between this sticky man and myself but he yipped when he saw the size of the tip, and chased after me.
You are my best friend ever, he said.
I gave him the “keep away” eye and fended off what might have been an enormous sloppy hug.
Come back at three, I said, and went inside.
I found my mother in the room off the kitchen. Heavily curtained, with a plush rug and a small couch, the room was done in an olive shade with accents of gold. In the corner sat Aggie with a paper bib over her bathrobe; a black woman in enormous white jeans was hovering over her like a dental assistant, feeding her yogurt by the spoonful.
I sat down opposite them and waved a little hello. Part audience, part talk show, part bail appearance.
My mother was famous for hiring and firing maids. This went on from her first black helper in 1944 to the present. Her life was an education in civil rights.
Teddy! What a surprise! she said when she saw me, and her eyes darted around the room looking for liquor bottles left open and out, or ashtrays full of cigar butts.
I want you to meet Didi, my daytime support person.
Didi, as it turned out, came up from South Carolina as a little girl. Her father was a porter; her mother took in wash. Didi had a sweet face, and a body built for work. She had broad shoulders and big hands with blue numbers tattooed between the knuckles.
Hello, Didi, I said. Say, what do the numbers mean?
Head down she replied, They’re not all numbers.
Well, letters and numbers, I said.
E-P-H-E-S-6-1-0. Ephesians 6:10, put on the full armor of God.
I understand. And is that what you do?
Didi gave me a quick shy smile and looked away. I loved her from the start to the finish of the day. The spoon flashed through the air, my mother swallowed with the noisy urgency of a heifer. Finally she stopped swallowing and waved Didi away, took a napkin and wiped her lips.
I got up and, leaning over mom’s walker, gave her a kiss on her powdery cheek. She squeezed my hand.
Hello, mamma, said another voice.
It was Parth, he had stuck his head in the doorway. He featured his deerskin driving gloves, posed in spasms of discovery against his purple suit.
Lucky mom, he said, adopting a pose of supplication. Son is luck, momma—always luck. Can I use your restroom, your caballeros, your loo?
I was beginning to like him.
That suit! said mother. Who is that?
That is the limo driver, I said. Then, to Parth, Sure, go ahead.
Didi showed Parth where the bathroom was, and she was gone for minutes.
Hello, dear, mother said to me when we were alone.
My mother looks more like Liberace every day: stiff champagne bouffant hair and all. She has the oversize jewelry, the Catwoman glasses, the brutal rings, the ermine collars on her bathrobes.
How was your flight?
I hate United.
Parth popped his head in as he returned through the kitchen, taking his arm from around Didi’s shoulder.
Thank you, mama, he said. May you have good son-visit.
Do you know each other? mother asked me.
No, I said.
He is my best friend for worlds to come, said Parth effusively.
He’s the limo driver, I said. He’s okay.
Well, let’s get him out of here, said mom. This isn’t Grand Central Station.
I stood to whisk Parth away when another person stuck a bright henna’d head in the kitchen with a “Morning, all.”
And who are you? asked Parth.
My name is Parth Semalayen.
Oh, for God’s sake, said mother. Excuse me. Come in, Marybeth.
I pushed Parth out the door and backed out of the kitchen into my couch seat.
Marybeth squeezed past Didi and entered the smaller room. Didi remained at the door, watching Parth climb into the limo. I was watching Didi and before I knew it, Marybeth was standing in front of me, clasping my hands in hers.
You must be Aggie’s eldest. I’m Marybeth.
Marybeth was an almost-plump cheerful widow. I removed my hands from hers. From behind her came mother’s voice.
Marybeth’s husband was Ray. He went to Loyola with your father.
Good old Ray, said Marybeth.
He was a dic-tator, said mother.
He was the product of Jesuits, said Marybeth, looking past the cluttered sink and out the window.
You’ve got the scars, babe, replied mother to her friend.
Turning to my mother Marybeth said, Well, look at you this morning. How’s the stomach?
So you’re good to go, then, said Marybeth. She took mother’s hands in hers and they began to pray quietly out loud. When I realized what they were doing, I jumped up and put my hands on theirs and joined in the droning of the prayer.
. . . thykingdomcome, thywillbedone. . . . and my voice, lending bass and slightly out of synch . . . on earth asitisin. . . heaven . . .
As I stood beside her, Marybeth reached into the pocket of her plaid shorts and took out a golden pyx. This was a shock. I knew what a pyx was; lapsed Catholics never forget the slightest detail. My mother was receiving communion at home. A pyx is a carrier of communion hosts. It looks something like a pocket watch, only bigger, thicker. It had a chi and a ro engraved on the front. Marybeth opened it: there was a stack of hosts within.
Do you want to receive? she asked me. I shook my head no and sat down.
The body of Christ, said Marybeth, laying a host on my mother’s tongue.
I watched my mother; she chewed and swallowed her meal of eternity. There was no experience; it was an act of faith. The room rang with the commonplace. And with our secrets: my mother’s, Marybeth’s, mine.
Marybeth and Aggie closed their eyes for a minute. I looked out the window and saw a magpie land in a magnolia tree, scattering soft petals on the green lawn.
I like the Our Father, I said to Marybeth, when she had opened her eyes. It assumes much of us; it assumes that we forgive people who offend us.
Better mean it when you say it, then, she replied. I loved her kind eyes and her white Pumas.
My eldest here, said mother, is part of an effort to legalize peyote as a sacrament.
Marybeth said, Oh?
It’s true though, I said. We’re going to legalize LSD and peyote. We’re going to downgrade status from Forbidden to Sacrament, like this, in the pyx, no disrespect of course, the body of Christ. And there have to be some messengers who know the territory, and message back, so your mail doesn’t get delivered upside down, if you know what I mean. Interpreters of signs, welcomers with food. Lifeguards, that sort of thing.
Marybeth thought about this. So, she replied, there is something special about peyote? You hallucinate?
I said, It’s not about hallucinations, it’s about getting past them.
I hallucinate, said mother. I think.
I said, I want to hear more about that.
Marybeth said, Under the right circumstances, I would like to try peyote.
Marybeth was wonderful, all brave and roly-poly as she broke away in mid-life from under her massive load of priest-ridden Irish papism.
My mother said, Wait a second. Didi, I need you to return this dress to Lord & Taylor.
Arrigh, said Didi. Have a sales slip?
Go! Scat! You have to learn to do returns without receipts.
I’ll be leaving, said Marybeth. I have someone waiting in the car. We’re off to Flemington.
She made her good-byes. When she came to me she said, If the circumstances are ever right . . . and gave my hands a double squeeze.
She slipped out the kitchen door and I had a few minutes with mother.
I thought you lived alone and isolated, I said.
You’ve lost weight, she said. I am alone 28 days of the month. Never know when it’s going to get crowded. I fell last week and passed out. And when I came to there were five firemen standing around the bed.
Sounds like a Nativity Scene. I lost five pounds.
Didi was back. I could hear her bustling in the hallway, and putting things in the refrigerator. She came into our space with a jar of moisturizing crème.
Did they exchange it? my mother asked.
Not without a sales slip, said Didi.
My mother gritted her teeth. I had a feeling Didi’s days were numbered. I looked at Didi; clearly she had that feeling too.
Are y’all ready?
Oh, give me just a second here, said Aggie, re-arranging herself as if in a barber’s chair, head back. Didi waited respectfully and then dipped into the cream and started applying it. It was pale green, Halloween green.
Do you do this every day? I asked.
Only the days when Didi’s here.
How much for the face cream?
About $800 a month.
It’s Chanel Sublimage.
You’d be better off buying drugs!
Vanity only wants one thing, she said demurely.
She got a crate of it, said Didi. as she labored to apply cream around the eyes, nose and mouth.
Get the wattles, said my mother impatiently.
Her skin is so soft, Didi said to me, with low-voiced awe.
That’s the payoff, eh?
I’m just sayin’. Touch here, on her cheek . . .
Thanks, I’ll take your word for it.
When Didi finished the application, she let my mother sit for a while, while the goop did its work. Soon mother was chin-up, mouth-open, on-her-back snoring. Didi turned her gaze on me.
I think in a past life she was Cleopatra, she said. She likes having Nubian slaves.
How’s she doing?
She’s 90, said Didi. Other than that she’s fine. Lately, she sleeps a lot.
She leered at me—was it a leer?
How would you like a Nubian slave? she asked.
And suddenly there is Didi in a harem outfit flitting among the Nubian pyramids.
And there she is in a bikini near Gebel Barkal, vivaciously entertaining soldiers; and naked at Nuri, across the Nile from Gebel Barkal, seductive on the hot rocks; singing at El Kerru, and standing there shrugging her big shoulders athletically at Merroe, south of Gebel Barkal. My heart was pounding.
Before I could register my emotion at these sensuous visions, my mother came out of her trance, sat upright in her green mask, with eyes squeezed shut, and said, I want to ask you something? About hallucinating?
Yes? I said, looking around. This would seem like an appropriate time . . .
Well, just what is it, a hallucination?
Aggie’s eyes rolled as she considered this and finally said, California bosh!
I’ll put it in your terms “ —All things shall pass away. . . ”
That’s a bad quote.
You get the idea.
And don’t quote at me from my own religion—it’s rude.
I can’t give you pharmaceutical advice, but I can give you a list of drugs that will make you not hallucinate, not let you hallucinate, if that’s what you want.
Write it down for me, that’s a boy-o, she said, shoving a pen and pad my way.
I’m surprised at your age you haven’t tried the whole gamut of them, I said, as I wrote down on the pad some brand-name anti-depressants.
So listen, I said. Don’t be afraid of a hallucination. Embrace it. Control it. That’s what you want ultimately anyway, isn’t it? In life?
For heaven’s sakes, said my mother. I certainly don’t know what you’re talking about.
Well, tell me a hallucination of yours.
Really? I can’t. It’s too private. Well, okay . . . I look out the window and the Vice-President is coming up the walk to the door.
No, Nixon. This is back in Eisenhower.
Invite him in. Tell him about Obamacare.
The Vice President wanted me to sign his crime bill. He was sitting right on that couch where you’re sitting now and he offered me a quill.
You took the quill?
No . . .
Take the quill. Sign anything, it’s not binding in dreams.
We went on in this fashion for a while, me trying to help her with my psycho-babble, she fending me off. Suddenly she gave a little gasp. She was looking right at me.
I never noticed it before, she said, but you look so much like Howard—
You never used to think so.
But your forehead, your hair, your lips today—
Howard-ish . . .
Yes . . . but it’s strange, and amazing. How can I—I never saw it before. You look just like him.
She sat back in her chair, holding both hands on a cane. Her face flushed and tears came to her eyes. But she didn’t cry or carry on.
These are happy tears, goddammit, she croaked.
Tomorrow I won’t look like Howard. Tomorrow I’ll be back to my usual old face—
I love your face, she fairly blubbered, looking up at me.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and came across Didi in a corner of another room, whispering on her cellphone. When I came out of the bathroom she was off the phone and she said to me, I can do better than this. I can.
I nodded in sympathy. Better put on the Armor, I said, and went back inside. Mother was looking out the window.
It’s that driver again, she said. The purple suit. I can see him from here.
I looked out the window and saw Parth parking the limo in front of the magnolia tree, and Didi, strangely, running out to talk to him. Parth was on his cellphone. The next thing I knew, mine was ringing.
I know it is truly only two p.m., boss, Parth said. But listen, you take your time, come out at three, three-fifteen. If you want to come out earlier, that’s fine too.
I’ll be out at three, I said, and clicked off.
He can’t park there, said Aggie. He’s blocking ingress.
Did you just say “blocking ingress”?
That poor man, said mother, and I knew our afternoon was about over.
I just tipped him a fortune, I said. He’s not poor.
Well, why is he out there now if you said three?
It couldn’t make sense for him to go all the way back to Manhattan, I said. That’s my guess. But that’s his problem. I don’t like to be rushed.
Should we invite him in for coffee?
He’s responsible for your well-being!
You better go, then, don’t you think? said Aggie. Or does he get paid extra?
I’ll take care of him, I said. I’m going, then . . . good to see you.
We embraced; her champagne hair scratched my neck.
Treat that man kindly, said mother.
I’m getting to like him. What about you? I asked. You going to fire Didi?
Never you mind. No, maybe.
She came and stood at the open door while I got in the limo.
Suddenly Didi came bursting through the door, shoulder bag flying, almost knocking mother down.
I’m going to New York, said Didi. Parth and I . . .
Mother didn’t get it. Bring back some mayonnaise, she called to Didi.
I told you I quit, said Didi. Get it yourself.
Be nice, said Parth.
Mother waved weakly, holding her walker with one shaky hand, and made kissing shapes with her bee-stung lips. Parth and I both waved back and smiled; Parth even blew her a kiss. Didi sat in the front and stared straight ahead, thrumming, elated. We took off.
With the sun at our back, talking and laughing, we sped together down Route 22 east, in heavy afternoon traffic, up 1-9 north to the Pulaski Skyway, over the Hackensack and down the slick precipice of Jersey City, into the Holland Tunnel.