When I was very small, my father said, ‘Lizzie, I want to tell you something about your grandfather. Just before he died, he was alive. Fifteen minutes before.’
I had never known my grandfather. This was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard about him. Still, I said, No.
‘“No!”’ my father said. ‘What do you mean, “No”.’ He laughed.
I shook my head.
‘All right,’ my father said, ‘it was one minute before. I thought you were too little to know such things, but I see you’re not. It was even less than a minute. It was one moment before.’
‘Oh stop teasing her,’ my mother said to my father.
‘He’s just teasing you, Lizzie,’ my mother said.
In warm weather once we drove up into the mountains, my mother, my father and I, and stayed for several days at a resort lodge on a lake. In the afternoons, horse races took place in the lodge. The horses were blocks of wood with numbers painted on them, moved from one end of the room to the other by ladies in ball gowns. There was a long pier that led out into the lake and at the end of the pier was a night club that had a twenty-foot-tall champagne glass on the roof. At night, someone would pull a switch and neon bubbles would spring out from the lit glass into the black air. I very much wanted such a glass on the roof of our own house and I wanted to be the one who, every night, would turn on the switch. My mother always said about this, ‘We’ll see.’
I saw an odd thing once, there in the mountains. I saw my father, pretending to be lame. This was in the midst of strangers in the gift shop of the lodge. The shop sold hand-carved canes, among many other things, and when I came in to buy bubblegum in the shape of cigarettes, to which I was devoted, I saw my father, hobbling painfully down the aisle, leaning heavily on a dully-gleaming, yellow cane, his shoulders hunched, one leg turned out at a curious angle. My handsome, healthy father, his face drawn in dreams. He looked at me. And then he looked away as though he did not know me.
My mother was a drinker. Because my father left us, I assumed he was not a drinker, but this may not have been the case. My mother loved me and was always kind to me. We spent a great deal of time together, my mother and I. This was before I knew how to read. I suspected there was a trick to reading, but I did not know the trick. Written words were something between me and a place I could not go. My mother went back and forth to that place all the time, but couldn’t explain to me exactly what it was like there. I imagined it to be a different place.
As a very young child, my mother had seen the magician Houdini. Houdini had made an elephant disappear. He had also made an orange tree grow from a seed right on the stage. Bright oranges hung from the tree and he had picked them and thrown them out into the audience. People could eat the oranges or take them home, whatever they wanted.
How did he make the elephant disappear, I asked.
‘He disappeared in a puff of smoke,’ my mother said. ‘Houdini said that even the elephant didn’t know how it was done.’
Was it a baby elephant, I asked.
My mother sipped her drink. She said that Houdini was more than a magician, he was an escape artist. She said that he could escape from handcuffs and chains and ropes.
‘They put him in straitjackets and locked him in trunks and threw him in swimming pools and rivers and oceans and he escaped,’ my mother said. ‘He escaped from water-filled vaults. He escaped from coffins.’
I said that I wanted to see Houdini.
‘Oh, Houdini’s dead, Lizzie,’ my mother said. ‘He died a long time ago. A man punched him in the stomach three times and he died.’
Dead. I asked if he couldn’t get out of being dead.
‘He met his match there,’ my mother said.
She said that he turned a bowl of flowers into a pony who cantered around the stage.
‘He sawed a lady in half too, Lizzie. Oh, how I wanted to be that lady, sawed in half and then made whole again!’
My mother spoke happily, laughing. We sat at the kitchen table and my mother was drinking from a small glass which rested snugly in her hand. It was my favorite glass too but she never let me drink from it. There were all kinds of glasses in our cupboard but this was the one we both liked. This was in Maine. Outside, in the yard, was our car which was an old blue convertible.
Was there blood, I asked.
‘No, Lizzie, no. He was a magician!’
Did she cry that lady, I wanted to know.
‘I don’t think so,’ my mother said. ‘Maybe he hypnotized her first.’
It was winter. My father had never ridden in the blue convertible which my mother had bought after he had gone. The car was old then, and was rusted here and there. Beneath the rubber mat on my side, the passenger side, part of the floor had rusted through completely. When we went anywhere in the car, I would sometimes lift up the mat so I could see the road rushing past beneath us and feel the cold round air as it came up through the hole. I would pretend that the coldness was trying to speak to me, in the same way that words written down tried to speak. The air wanted to tell me something, but I didn’t care about it, that’s what I thought. Outside, the car stood in the snow.
I had a dream about the car. My mother and I were alone together as we always were, linked in our hopeless and uncomprehending love of one another, and we were driving to a house. It seemed to be our destination but we only arrived to move on. We drove again, always returning to the house which we would circle and leave, only to arrive at it again. As we drove, the inside of the car grew hair. The hair was grey and it grew and grew. I never told my mother about this dream just as I had never told her about my father leaning on the cane. I was a secretive person. In that way, I was like my mother.
I wanted to know more about Houdini. Was Houdini in love, did Houdini love someone, I asked.
‘Rosabelle,’ my mother said. ‘He loved his wife, Rosabelle.’
I went and got a glass and poured some ginger ale in it and I sipped my ginger ale slowly in the way that I had seen my mother sip her drink many, many times. Even then, I had the gestures down. I sat opposite her, very still and quiet, pretending.
But then I wanted to know was there magic in the way he loved her. Could he make her disappear. Could he make both of them disappear was the way I put my question.
‘Rosabelle,’ my mother said. ‘No one knew anything about Rosabelle except that Houdini loved her. He never turned their love into loneliness which would have been beneath him of course.’
We ate our supper and after supper my mother would have another little bit to drink. Then she would read articles from the newspaper aloud to me.
‘My goodness,’ she said, ‘what a strange story. A hunter shot a bear who was carrying a woman’s pocketbook in its mouth.’
Oh, oh, I cried. I looked at the newspaper and struck it with my fingers. My mother read on, a little oblivious to me. The woman had lost her purse years before on a camping trip. Everything was still inside it, her wallet and her compact and her keys.
Oh, I cried. I thought this was terrible. I was frightened, thinking of my mother’s pocketbook, the way she carried it always, and the poor bear too.
Why did the bear want to carry a pocketbook, I asked.
My mother looked up from the words in the newspaper. It was as though she had come back into the room I was in.
‘Why, Lizzie,’ she said.
The poor bear, I said.
‘Oh, the bear is all right,’ my mother said. ‘The bear got away.’
I did not believe this was the case. She herself said the bear had been shot.
‘The bear escaped,’ my mother said. ‘It says so right here,’ and she ran her finger along a line of words. ‘It ran back into the woods to its home.’ She stood up and came around the table and kissed me. She smelled then like the glass that was always in the sink in the morning, and the smell reminds me still of daring and deception, hopes and little lies.
I shut my eyes and in that way I felt I could not hear my mother. I saw the bear holding the pocketbook, walking through the woods with it, feeling fine in a different way and pretty too, then stopping to find something in it, wanting something, moving its big paw through the pocketbook’s small things.
‘Lizzie,’ my mother called to me. My mother did not know where I was, which alarmed me. I opened my eyes.
‘Don’t cry, Lizzie,’ my mother said. She looked as though she were about to cry too. This was the way it often was at night, late in the kitchen with my mother.
My mother returned to the newspaper and began to turn the pages. She called my attention to the drawing of a man holding a hat with stars sprinkling out of it. It was an advertisement for a magician who would be performing not far away. We decided we would see him. My mother knew just the seats she wanted for us, good seats, on the aisle close to the stage. We might be called up on the stage, she said, to be part of the performance. Magicians often used people from the audience, particularly children. I might even be given a rabbit.
I wanted a rabbit.
I put my hands on the table and I could see the rabbit between them. He was solid white in the front and solid black in the back as though he were made up of two rabbits. There are rabbits like that. I saw him there, before me on the table, a nice rabbit.
My mother went to the phone and ordered two tickets, and not many days after that we were in our car driving to Portland for the matinee performance. I very much liked the word matinee. Matinee, matinee, I said. There was a broad hump on the floor between our seats and it was here my mother put her little glass, the glass often full, never, it seemed, more than half empty. We chatted together and I thought we must have appeared interesting to others as we passed by in our convertible in winter. My mother spoke about happiness. She told me that the happiness that comes out of nowhere, out of nothing, is the very best kind. We paid no attention to the coldness which was speaking in the way that it had, but enjoyed the sun which beat through the windshield upon our pale hands.
My mother said that Houdini had black eyes and that white doves flew from his fingertips. She said that he escaped from a block of ice.
Did he look like my father, Houdini, I asked. Did he have a moustache.
‘Your father didn’t have a moustache,’ my mother said, laughing. ‘Oh, I wish I could be more like you.’
Later, she said, ‘Maybe he didn’t escape from a block of ice, I’m not sure about that. Maybe he wanted to, but he never did.’
We stopped for lunch somewhere, a dark little restaurant along the road. My mother had cocktails and I myself drank something cold and sweet. The restaurant was not very nice. It smelled of smoke and dampness as though once it had burned down, and it was so noisy that I could not hear my mother very well. My mother looked like a woman in a bar, pretty and disturbed, hunched forward saying, ‘Who do you think I look like? Will you remember me?’ She was saying all manner of things. We lingered there, and then my mother asked the time of someone and seemed surprised. My mother was always surprised by time. Outside, there were woods of green fir trees whose lowest branches swept the ground, and as we were getting back into the car I believed I saw something moving far back in the darkness of the woods beyond the slick, snowy square of the parking lot. It was the bear, I thought. Hurry, hurry, I thought. The hunter is playing with his children. He is making them something to play in as my father had once made a small playhouse for me. He is not the hunter yet. But in my heart I knew the bear was gone and the shape was just the shadow of something else in the afternoon.
My mother drove very fast but the performance had already begun when we arrived. My mother’s face was damp and her good blouse had a spot on it. She went into the ladies’ room and when she returned the spot was larger, but it was water now and not what it had been before. The usher assured us that we had not missed much. The usher said that the magician was not very good, that he talked and talked, he told a lot of jokes and then when you were bored and distracted, something would happen, something would have changed. The usher smiled at my mother. He seemed to like her, even know her in some way. He was a small man, like an old boy, balding. I did not care for him. He led us to our seats, but there were people sitting in them and there was a small disturbance as the strangers rearranged themselves. We were both expectant, my mother and I, and we watched the magician intently. My mother’s lips were parted, and her eyes were bright. On the stage were a group of children about my age, each with a hand on a small cage the magician was holding. In the cage was a tiny bird. The magician would ask the children to jostle the cage occasionally and the bird would flutter against the bars so that everyone would see it was a real thing with bones and breath and feelings too. Each child announced that they had a firm grip on the bars. Then the magician put a cloth over the cage, gave a quick tug and cage and bird vanished. I was not surprised. It seemed just the kind of thing that was going to happen. I decided to withhold my applause when I saw that my mother’s hands too were in her lap. There were several more tricks of the magician’s invention, certainly nothing I would have asked him to do. Large constructions of many parts and colours were wheeled onto the stage. There were doors everywhere which the magician opened and slammed shut. Things came and went, all to the accompaniment of loud music. I was confused and grew hot. My mother too moved restlessly in the next seat. Then there was an intermission and we returned to the lobby.
‘This man is a far, far cry from the great Houdini,’ my mother said.
What were his intentions exactly, I asked.
He had taken a watch from a man in the audience and smashed it for all to see with a hammer. Then the watch, unharmed, had reappeared behind the man’s ear.
‘A happy memory can be a very misleading thing,’ my mother said. ‘Would you like to go home?’
I did not really want to leave. I wanted to see it through. I held the glossy programme in my hand and turned the pages. I stared hard at the print beneath the pictures and imagined all sorts of promises being made.
‘Yes, we want to see how it’s done, don’t we, you and I,’ my mother said. ‘We want to get to the bottom of it.’
I guessed we did.
‘All right, Lizzie,’ my mother said, ‘but I have to get something out of the car. I’ll be right back.’
I waited for her in a corner of the lobby. Some children looked at me and I looked back. I had a package of gum cigarettes in my pocket and I extracted one carefully and placed the end in my mouth. I held the elbow of my right arm with my left hand and smoked the cigarette for a long time and then I folded it up in my mouth and I chewed it for a while. My mother had not yet returned when the performance began again. She was having a little drink, I knew, and she was where she went when she drank without me, somewhere in herself. It was not the place where words could take you but another place even. I stood alone in the lobby for a while, looking out into the street. On the sidewalk outside the theatre sand had been scattered, and the sand ate through the ice in ugly holes. I saw no one like my mother passing by. She was wearing a red coat. Once she had said to me, ‘You’ve fallen out of love with me, haven’t you?’ and I knew she was thinking I was someone else, but this had happened only once.
I heard the music from the stage and I finally returned to our seats. There were not as many people in the audience as before. On stage with the magician was a woman in a bathing suit and high-heeled shoes holding a chainsaw. The magician demonstrated that the saw was real by cutting up several pieces of wood with it. There was the smell of torn wood for everyone to smell and sawdust on the floor for all to see. Then a table was wheeled out and the lady lay down on it in her bathing suit which was in two pieces. Her stomach was very white. The magician talked and waved the saw around. I suspected he was planning to cut the woman in half and I was eager to see this. I hadn’t the slightest fear about this at all. I did wonder if he would be able to put her together again or if he would cut her in half only. The magician said that what was about to happen was too dreadful to be seen directly, that he did not want anyone to faint from the sight, so he brought out a small screen and placed it in front of the lady so that we could no longer see her white stomach, although everyone could still see her face and her shoes. The screen seemed unnecessary to me and I would have preferred to have been seated on the other side of it. Several people in the audience screamed. The lady who was about to be sawed in half began to chew on her lip and her face looked worried.
It was then that my mother appeared on the stage. She was crouched over a little, for she didn’t have her balance back from having climbed up there. She looked large and strange in her red coat. The coat, which I knew very well, seemed the strangest thing. Someone screamed again, but more uncertainly. My mother moved towards the magician, smiling and speaking and gesturing with her hands, and the magician said, No, I can’t of course, you should know better than this, this is a performance, you can’t just appear like this, please sit down . . .
My mother said, But you don’t understand I’m willing, though I know the hazards and it’s not that I believe you, no one would believe you for a moment but you can trust me, that’s right, your faith in me would be perfectly placed because I’m not part of this, that’s why I can be trusted because I don’t know how it’s done . . .
Someone near me said, Is she kidding, that woman, what’s her plan, she comes out of nowhere and wants to be cut in half . . .
Lady . . . the magician said, and I thought a dog might appear for I knew a dog named Lady who had a collection of coloured balls.
My mother said, Most of us don’t understand I know and it’s just as well because the things we understand that’s it for them, that’s just the way we are . . .
She probably thought she was still in that place in herself, but everything she said was the words coming from her mouth. Her lipstick was gone. Did she think she was in disguise, I wondered.
But why not, my mother said, to go and come back, that’s what we want, that’s why we’re here and why can’t we expect something to be done you can’t expect us every day we get tired of showing up every day you can’t get away with this forever then it was different but you should be thinking about the children . . . She moved a little in a crooked fashion, speaking.
My God, said a voice, that woman’s drunk. Sit down, please! someone said loudly.
My mother started to cry then and she stumbled and pushed her arms out before her as though she were pushing away someone who was trying to hold her, but no one was trying to hold her. The orchestra began to play and people began to clap. The usher ran out onto the stage and took my mother’s hand. All this happened in an instant. He said something to her, he held her hand and she did not resist his holding it, then slowly the two of them moved down the few steps that led to the stage and up the aisle until they stopped beside me for the usher knew I was my mother’s child. I followed them, of course, although in my mind I continued to sit in my seat. Everyone watched us leave. They did not notice that I remained there among them, watching too.
We went directly out of the theatre and into the streets, my mother weeping on the little usher’s arm. The shoulders of his jacket were of cardboard and there was gold braid looped around them. We were being taken away to be murdered which seemed reasonable to me. The usher’s ears were large and he had a bump on his neck above the collar of his shirt. As we walked he said little soft things to my mother which gradually seemed to be comforting her. I hated him. It was not easy to walk together along the frozen sidewalks of the city. There was a belt on my mother’s coat and I hung on to that as we moved unevenly along.
Look, I’ve pulled myself through, he said. You can pull yourself through. He was speaking to my mother.
We went into a coffee shop and sat down in a booth.
‘You can collect yourself in here,’ he said. ‘You can sit here as long as you want and drink coffee and no one will make you leave.’ He asked me if I wanted a donut. I would not speak to him. If he addressed me again, I thought, I would bite him. On the wall over the counter were pictures of sandwiches and pies. I did not want to be there and I did not take off either my mittens or my coat. The little usher went up to the counter and brought back coffee for my mother and a donut on a plate for me.
Oh, my mother said, what have I done, and she swung her head from side to side.
I could tell right away about you, the usher said. You’ve got to pull yourself together. It took jumping off a bridge for me and breaking both legs before I got turned around. You don’t want to let it go that far.
My mother looked at him. I can’t imagine, my mother said.
Outside, a child passed by, walking with her sled. She looked behind her often and you could tell she was admiring the way the sled followed her so quickly on its runners.
You’re a mother, the usher said to my mother, you’ve got to pull yourself through.
His kindness made me feel he had tied us up with rope. At last he left us and my mother laid her head down upon the table and fell asleep. I had never seen my mother sleeping and I watched her as she must once have watched me, the same way everyone watches a sleeping thing, not knowing how it would turn out or when. Then slowly I began to eat the donut with my mittened hands. The sour hair of the wool mingled with the tasteless crumbs and this utterly absorbed my attention. I pretended someone was feeding me.
As it happened, my mother was not able to pull herself through, but this was later. At the time, it was not so near the end and when my mother woke we found the car and left Portland, my mother saying my name. Lizzie, she said. Lizzie. I felt as though I must be with her somewhere and that she knew that too, but not in that old blue convertible travelling home in the dark, the soft, stained roof ballooning up in the way I knew it looked from the outside. I got out of it, but it took me years.
Photograph © Yasmeen