There’s nothing you can do when the plumber’s on your basement floor, calling out the names of boiler parts, saying this whole connection back here’s about to go—he shines his flashlight on an alarm-red patch of rust—and this is gonna run you about twelve hundred, you want to put it on a card?
And houses need heat, so I hand it over. Because I like punishment, in this house where I was punished plenty. I thank him before he’s done anything.
My mother had a plumber, but he was one of these flakes from her church who worked out of his own car and probably wasn’t up on his license. The kind of person she trusted because he wasn’t corporate and so was somehow more honest.
Not just plumbers, though. All over the house there are moldings with miter joints that aren’t joined right or wiring that’s not close to meeting code.
And as I have a walk around, other things sound like they’re ready to fall apart, like the refrigerator rattling only because (perhaps? hope to God?) a pickle jar is jammed against the compressor. I hear scratches and try not to think about what has nested in the walls.
Our hope had been to put the place on the market in a month. In the meantime, there are these ghosts to shoo away.
Lily arrives a few hours later and the first thing she does—door still open, purse slung over her shoulder—is go from room to room with a Hefty bag and collect the scented candles. There’s a whole assortment scattered around the house, the wax suffocating the rooms. Lily knows each spot to hit like she’s raiding a bank. Mulberry, Hazelnut, Ocean Mist in the bathroom. All get dumped into one bag that soon bulges from the shapes of the jars. I lug the bag out to the garbage can and slam the lid on top. Then we open the windows.
“Now we can breathe,” she says.
I get out the coffee, our fancy air-roasted beans that we’ve brought up from New York. The screech of the grinder tears through the house. I steep it in the French press and we drink it from ceramic mugs that say The Best Is Yet to Come! and All of My Grandchildren Have Paws.
“Remember we’re here to do a job,” Lily says. She is cautioning me not to get too comfortable, knowing the mementos we’ll dig up. It’s one of the reasons we dragged our feet for a month.
“The stories, the pictures, I get it. There’ll be time for that later.”
Lily’s the one with the business degree. At the cocktail bar we own in Brooklyn Heights, she’s in charge of purchasing, schedules, and hiring. She lights fires under asses. I manage the bookings and wash the glassware and think up tongue-in-cheek names for the drinks so we can justify charging seventeen dollars for them.
It’s easier to manage a project when every decision is yours.
I start with tasks that feel useful. I test the smoke alarms. I listen to and delete months-old phone messages, Mom’s friends talking like she’s still here. Hey Gin, it’s Donna, just wondering if we’ll see you at the rummage on Saturday. Hilda and the girls were talking about going out for breakfast. Hope to see ya!
We find her bingo daubers, her good luck charms. Unopened jigsaw puzzles. A half-crocheted afghan.
I read the sticky notes on the wall calendar, a half of a recipe on the chalkboard. Mom’s handwriting still rigid and clean, she was militant about it until she couldn’t be anymore. Lily works quickly, her clogs heavy on the linoleum.
“Don’t get distracted,” she says behind me.
The kitchen is Lily’s project. She had called it before we left.
“Cooking spray!” she says. She has the cupboard open. “How many cans? Let’s count.” And she takes them down, one by one, setting them up on the counter like bowling pins. They come in varieties: original, olive oil, butter, coconut. My mother kept olive oil-flavored cooking spray but no actual olive oil.
“Oil and butter were against doctor’s orders,” I say.
“So let’s load up on preservatives and chemicals and who the hell knows what’s in this.” She reads the side of the can with her finger. “Propellants! Nice vague word there. They mean butane, for God’s sake.”
My mother’s cooking was a point of contention between her and Lily, and for a while when we dated, Lily and me. I was raised on waxed beans out of can, meatloaf made with onion powder, breaded chicken patties from the freezer.
Old milk, moldy oranges, what looks like a quiche in a takeout container. The disposal still works. So does the cable, because I’ve been paying it online, even though no one’s been around to watch TV in months.
“Oh my God, Brian.” Lily reaches to the back of the cupboard and pulls out a box of Idahoan. “Your mother was eating potatoes from a box. Are you telling me she didn’t know how to bake a goddamn potato?”
The Whole Foods didn’t arrive until last year, the next town over, along with a Starbucks and a Forever 21 and a GoBerry, one giant upscale bonanza of everything. The moment that happened we ditched Mom’s low-fat Oreos and replaced them with Newman-O’s.
By then, we had already had the talk with Mom. We invited the social worker to stay for dinner and Lily made a nice meal of chicken, peas, and couscous using margarine and one of Mom’s scratched Teflon pans.
The social worker said, “Ginny, this isn’t going to get any better.”
Mom was struggling to hold her fork. It wiggled in the air over her couscous like a seismograph needle. She thought the couscous was creamed corn.
“Who’s going to take care of the house while I’m away?” she said.
“We’ll look in,” I said. “Nothing’s going to change around here.”
We were consistent in this farce.
Mom said, “It sounds like you’ve already decided.” Which was the last perceptive thing she said.
We have learned some surprising things about the resale economy. Like how apparently there is an aftermarket for Thomas Kinkade prints. My mother, who couldn’t have told you who Winslow Homer was, cornered the market on lighthouse seascapes from the mall. Not just prints: collector plates, calendars, everything. The way she raved about Thomas Kinkade you’d have thought she was Clement Greenberg talking about the Abstract Expressionists.
My mother did know how to bake a potato. Wrapped in tinfoil, holes poked with a fork, slathered in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. She also made incredible American chop suey, which Lily insists she’s never had.
“You were an underprivileged child,” I tell her.
“And you’re going to die of lead poisoning,” she says.
I am reminded that when my father died, after a decade of being hounded to take care of his heart and liver, I found a half-case of Sam Adams kept cold in the bulkhead and an open package of cigars in the drawer of his workbench. It made me the happiest I had been that week.
Lily goes into the bedroom to take a phone call. I leave without telling her and head to Whole Foods, maneuvering the little mini-cart among the yoga moms. I pick up some grass-fed ground beef, organic tomato paste, and whole-wheat fusilli in a bag. Onions, garlic, olive oil. I pick out a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley.
When Lily opens the door, I proudly make an announcement: “I’m going to make us dinner.” At which point I notice that the cupboards are open and half-full boxes are on the floor.
But Lily doesn’t protest. The plates, removed from newspaper, are dusty and need to be washed. Lily digs out a couple of tumblers that we use for wine glasses.
Mom had her way of making American chop. I’m improvising as I go. A little olive oil for frying the meat, onion and garlic for flavor. The beef hisses in the skillet, the pasta water comes to a rolling boil. I reduce the sauce to a simmer. Lily leans against the breakfast bar and sips her wine, and we bask in the aromas, the kitchen as homey as it has been in a long time.
We settle in at the dining room table and I’m reminded of late nights after baseball practice, Mom sitting across the table watching me eat.
And it turns out awful. Awful in a way I didn’t know you could do to pasta. The sauce ends up tasting more like juice, the fusilli goes from al dente to mush. Lily and I look at each other, chewing slowly, trying to decide whether to laugh or cry at the monstrosity.
“Some houses are just cursed,” Lily says. “This one’s curse is food.”
By then it’s late and we’re depressed, and still hungry, so we go to McDonald’s. We cap the wine and hide the bottle under Lily’s coat, probably breaking a few laws.
It is an old McDonald's, you can tell from the décor: it has the characters carved into the walls, the ones you don’t see in the commercials anymore. The letters of TRASH and PLEASE and PUSH are worn beyond readability.
We sit in our booth with the Cheeseburger Mayor watching over us and dip our French fries in ketchup, the corn syrup coating our mouths.
“I had a birthday here once,” I say.
It was the year before Chuck E. Cheese came to the area and all the kids had their parties there instead. That was the year I got a Nerf Golf set and Missile Command for the Atari.
The Nerf Golf set, I realize, is still in the basement.
“I bet you took all your girlfriends here,” Lily says. She is trying to make me laugh.
We drive around town. I show Lily my old high school, remodeled so haphazardly that the architecture doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s a real estate office in place of the hobby store where I blew my landscaping money on baseball cards. We park at the old makeout spot behind the Papa Gino’s, but we aren’t in the mood to make out. We pass the rest of the bottle back and forth discreetly, checking over the shoulder for cops.
There’s too much work to do.
“She was happiest when she was cooking for other people,” I say. “And then we stopped showing up.”
“I guess it didn’t matter what she made,” Lily says. “She was the only one eating it.”
“It’s my fault. I neglected her.”
I put my head on the steering wheel and Lily puts her hand on the back of my neck. “We had our lives,” she says. “We had the bar, our friends. What were we supposed to do?”
The plumber has an opinion about comfort foods.
“American chop suey,” he says. “Cures any boy’s heartache.” He has helped himself to what was left in the pan.
The basement is still more or less a rumpus room. The Nerf Golf is still down here. So are my baseball trophies. Lily is amused by the residue. She plops herself down on the ratty green couch while the plumber rolls out his excuses. I’m distracted by flashbacks: of touching my first female breast on that couch, of Spin the Bottle and Hungry Hungry Hippos. Bowls of Alpha-Bits with Fraggle Rock on Saturday mornings.
What the plumber doesn’t have an answer for is the boiler. He needs a part. It’s taken him all day to figure this out.
We use this as an excuse to drive to Wakefield and check into the Marriott. We will want hot showers in the morning. Maybe we’ll dip our feet in the Jacuzzi. Enjoy a drink at the bar, let the piano player serenade us, the luxury carry us away.