Mommy has locked herself down in the basement. She is tired of the world, so she twisted the latch and stole her life back. Just for a minute.
Mommy has a phone down there. She is calling her friends. Chatting. Shooting the shit. She is giving her nursing breasts a rest. She is breathing. Blinking. Thinking. She is not thinking about anyone’s overdue library book. Or their silver hair clip or sweat socks. She is not scouring the stain from a brand new ten-dollar t-shirt or calculating the time since the baby’s last feed. She is not calling the guidance counselor, the hockey coach, or the school nurse.
She is calling her mother. She is calling to explain that she understands now.
SHE UNDERSTANDS NOW.
“Mom, I understand why you locked yourself in the basement,” she says. “It’s so quiet.”
Mommy is lucky. She has a washing machine down there. And a dryer. She has a sink to wash her teeth in if she’s gutsy enough to choose one of the old toothbrushes that she collects for scrubbing the grooves in blackened silver. She has a dehumidifier, so she’ll never feel damp and a boiler so she’ll never get cold.
All her mother had was a coal bin and a shovel. Mousetraps, a rusty clothes-wringer, and dust. (All her mother’s mother had was buried pennies in the dirt floor, away from that drunken slob of a son.)
“I’m so sorry,” Mommy says to her mother. “I wish I would have been a better kid.”
“The time I stole forty dollars out of your wallet. The tantrums I’d throw when you had to go to work. The charge card incident.”
“How can I make it up to you?”
Mommy is back from the nursing home and her eyes are wet. She files the day’s foreclosure notice with the other three, right next to a brightly colored pamphlet about how to survive bankruptcy. Someone screams about the permission slip she never signed and returned. Someone else can’t find their shoes. Mommy sits on the tartan swivel chair and looks at her watch.
Then she drags herself to the closet to get dressed for work.
She has a phone up there, and it rings. And it’s the administrator/charge nurse/billing clerk. It’s the doctor/surgeon/occupational therapist. It’s her mother again.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Mommy says to her mother, “But it’s never enough.”
Mommy has locked herself in the basement again. She’s packing the few things she has left and throwing everything else away. She’s yelling and crying and won’t answer the phone. She’s karate-chopping the appliances, boxing the water heater, fiberglass insulation cushioning her red knuckles. She is ignoring the flower delivery and the sympathy cards. She is considering burning them with the nursing home bills. Or burning down the whole damn billing department — which charged two bucks per diaper when her mother ran out. A dollar-fifty for a Tylenol or a Band-Aid while her children ate cheese sandwiches again, with ice water, for Sunday dinner.
Don’t worry. She’s not sick or too far-gone. She doesn’t require medication/hospitalization/tough love. She knows her life isn’t a waste. (It’s only money.)
Mommy’s children visit her five-story apartment complex in town and make sure she’s taking her protein supplements and extra calcium. They take her for walks on evenly-paved paths and ask the hairdresser for “something easy to take care of.” She’s not a bother or a pest. She is atoning for not being able to pay for college. For never being able to afford the wedding reception/dress/tuxedo rental. She is cashing in her life’s rain check gracefully, without too much expectation. She knows the children talk. About her. About what to do.
“Please don’t ever send me there,” Mommy says. Anywhere but there.
ANYWHERE BUT THERE.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “That place swallowed my life.”
Mommy plays bingo in the rec room with the others. Last time she overheard, she was doing well in her new environment. The nurses don’t say anything directly, except when they want her to move.
“It’s time for our walk!”
“Are you ready for activities?”
“Time for Groovy Granny exercise!”
They’re always smiling. Like clowns.
Last time she overheard, it was costing a fortune. The insurance is all messed up. Medicare doesn’t buy what it used to. Mommy’s son-in-law is beginning to look like a human calculator. And tired. They all look so tired.
They put her in rubber pants again. Mommy hates rubber pants. But the human calculator can’t afford enough store-brand Depends, and the new pills the doctor prescribed are making her go twice as much so she leaves a trail of liquid behind her wherever she sits. Mommy heard the nurses make a joke. They call her ‘The Snail.’
Mommy, AKA ‘The Snail’ is learning Transcendental Meditation. The Groovy Granny exercise lady has a class every Monday and Friday in the rec room. Mommy is sitting with her back straight, breathing, and clearing her mind. She is creating her sanctuary.
“Your sanctuary can be anywhere you feel most comfortable,” she hears. “Somewhere pleasant and peaceful.”
She flies out the window, up to the clouds above her old neighborhood, and down, into her old house — the house the bank finally took. She flies into the basement and sees they’ve managed all this time with the same old water heater, still wrapped in a red fiberglass cozy. Mommy marvels how the old appliance will outlive her.
Her flying is cut short by the instructor’s hand on her arm.
“Of course I’m all right,” she says. “I was just transcending. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
Mommy has been moved to a different room. She has to share now, with a roommate. They have a phone that doesn’t dial out and never rings except for telemarketers. Last time she overheard, the billing department was sick of chasing up money, of bouncing checks and maxed credit cards. Mommy thinks this generation has it harder than she ever did. To live now is to always be digging.
It’s Friday and Mommy has a visitor. A grandchild, sweet smelling and soft, spitting up curdled milk and mucus on everyone’s shoulder. This is what it’s all about. Babies making babies making babies. And now Mommy is the calculator’s baby, when he should be enjoying his newfound fatherhood, not bouncing checks for the sake of a hot meal topped with tapioca pudding three times a day.
During meditation class, Mommy flies to the parking lot and siphons gas from a sky blue Chrysler LeBaron into the clear quart bottle they gave her to pee in. She fastens the cap and hides it under her chair. She flies to the nurses’ lunchroom and steals matches from nurse Fran’s coat pocket.
After class, Mommy passes the dining room where some women, snackers with fat asses, are gathered, eating mid-afternoon ice cream cones. She waves calmly when she passes the physical therapy room and smiles when she shuffles past the upright oak-stained piano and the war heroes who tell Korea stories on the floral couches. One of the men mumbles something about how she must be lost.
“Nothing back there but accountants and girls in suits,” she hears.
Of course, she knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s doing. She’s saving them. She’s saving their families. She’s saving herself from one more day of this goddamned mess. She enters the employee-only area and quickly finds the door marked ‘Billing.’