Where it used to be

By August 25, 2020 No Comments

By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

My father and I sat in the car parked up against the curb. The heat was on but low. Like any real New Englander he had a funny economy with heat, even in the car where it didn’t cost any extra.

“The light’s not on, maybe they aren’t there. I’ll drive you around a little while till we find them.”

        “It’s fine.”

        “Maybe I’ll just stick around a minute.”

        “No, it’s okay. Leave me here, I’ll figure it out.” I closed the door, hopped the slush and made it to the door of the building just as they were coming down. “It’s fine, see, I’ll see you in an hour. That place the bookstore used to be.”

       “Hey,” I said.


       “Hello,” the other said.

       We walked the blocks to the Thai food place. I didn’t remember ever going to a restaurant like that with them. Going out to eat was a very big deal when I was a kid and hadn’t happened since I was very young. We didn’t have much money when I was little.

I told them about how my dog had been killed by a hit and run. How I carried his body to the backyard and buried him. I felt a little stupid saying it but it was something to say.

      The snow fell wetly, the traffic lights blurred into the weather. The flakes collected on everything like shed skin. Her face seemed more bloated than I remembered.

         “How was yoga,” I said.

         “It was slow, but that’s okay for me,” said my mother.

         My sister laughed. I smiled, but I was faking it.

         “I’m only here till tomorrow,” she said.

         I had heard yoga was an everyday thing for her now. Very strange to think of my mother doing that. I’d heard she was living with that Vietnam vet on property her parents, my grandparents, bought but never used out in PA, that mountain in the middle of nowhere where she had spent her honeymoon five years before I was born. I had trouble picturing her in the woods taking care of a man with Parkinson’s disease, taking breaks to bend her body into positions named after animals; crow,  downward dog.

       We went in. She bent towards me and said in a low voice, “Do they have a liquor license, that’s all I care about.” I pointed to the bar and she said, “Good.”

       They figured out where to sit. The waitress came with the menus, said her greetings, and walked to another table.

       “I don’t know what to get.”

       “What do you usually eat?”

       “I don’t eat this stuff.”

       “Well, what do you usually eat?”

       “Cheese and that sort of thing.”

       “Do you like noodles or rice?”

       The waitress came over.

       “I think we need a minute,” my sister said.

       “No, I just want to take your drink order.”

       “I’ll have whatever wine you have,” my mother said.

       “Iced tea,” my sister said.

       “Water,” I said.

       The waitress left.

       “Okay,” I said, “We’ll pick two and you try them both and whichever you like less I’ll eat.”

        The drinks came, we ordered. The food came.

        “I have to pee. You eat some of each and then decide which you want.”

I walked to the bathroom. There were no urinals. The first stall had a paper sign scotch-taped to the door that said “broken.” I pissed in the next one looking at the warning not to flush sanitary napkins. That reminded me of when, a few years back, a former roommate had clogged the toilet with tampons and flooded the upstairs bathroom. I had wrapped my hand in plastic wrap and pulled them out, running downstairs and tossing them out the front door. The plastic wrap did not do anything but trap toilet water in it.

       I walked back, sat.

       “So, what do you think?” I asked.

       “Hi,” a voice said, then repeated with a little less certainty. I looked up.

       “Hi,” I said.

       There was someone I hadn’t seen in a while. She was standing next to the table in the corner of the room. I walked over towards her and she walked over to me. We hugged. Her breasts pressed against me, they were bigger than I remembered. I went to my seat. Her take-out order came out.

       “I’m just here for Christmas,” I shouted across the restaurant, “I live in Mexico now.”

       “I live in California.” And she walked out, brown bag in hand, some guy on her arm. I recognized the look on his face as one I’d made before.

       “I haven’t seen her in like ten years,” I said.

       My mother smiled from across the table but clearly didn’t know who the girl had been.

        “You remember her,” my sister said, “she’s the one who climbed over the fence that time and got stuck in the bushes and the dog woke us all up.”

         “Oh, yeah,” she said vaguely.

         That was when I was 13 maybe 14, it was some years after my mother had started to have problems. She couldn’t be around men. They all represented something that had hurt her and so they all became deserving of hurt. This hurt extended to my father until she kicked him out, and once he was gone it extended to me, until I was kicked out too. I was around 8 when it began, when her pent things erupted. I didn’t know the reasons back then, I only knew the results, all those diseased hours, years, all that hell tangling into itself. When my father was gone, all of that rage and fortified pain was heaped onto me. I was confused more than anything. Sitting in that restaurant I knew it had all been well over a decade before, but I still carried a lot of the residue with me.

       “Let’s share,” she said.


       She put some of each on her plate. I ate the rest out of the bowls. I looked above her head at the mirror behind her. I was able to see the clock that was behind me on the wall in its reflection. It was just above the reflection of her back. I wanted to check the time, see how much longer I would be there. I would have seen its reflection ticking backwards in the mirror if it hadn’t been broken. The second hand seemed to be stuck and clicked back and forth between the same two numbers.  She caught me looking.

       “It’s about ten-of. I know that because mine usually runs ten minutes fast.” She held hers up. The face of it was on her wrist just above where her pulse would be.

       I was eating pretty quickly but trying not to look like it.

      “They appreciated your letter, Grandma and Grandpa.”

      “I’m glad,” I said.

      “They kept it by the bed in this basket they had, with your cousin’s motorcycle pictures.”

      “I’m glad they got the letter.”

      “Give me your address, I’ll send you the write up.”

      “I didn’t figure a town that small had a newspaper.”

      “They don’t, it was the next town over. What’s your address?”

      “So are you living there now? You don’t live in Pennsylvania anymore?” I said.

      “I moved in to take care of them. She didn’t want to be in hospice. They loved that house. Now it’s just me and B— and the dog. Now I am taking care of B—. The people at the veteran thing brought us a ramp.”

       “It’s lucky they died together. Most people don’t get to have that,” I said.

       “I have a photo of them.”

       She laid it in front of me next to my napkin. The two of them sat in lawn chairs. His thin ankles poked out from the bottom of his jeans. He had a beer in hand as always and she sat next to him looking tired.

       “She went into a coma first. He wanted to be in bed next to her, but the bed was high and it was too difficult for him. We dragged the Lay-Z-Boy next to the bed so he could hold her hand. He looked over at me and said ‘I’m gonna’ check out soon. Bring me around the house first.’

       “It took him a good half-hour just to get to the living room. He said he wanted to see the fireplace because that’s where everyone always got their pictures taken. He said he wanted one more so we took one. Walked to the kitchen and looked out the window at the backyard and he made some jokes about wanting to hunt. Then I walked him back to the room. He was tired. I helped him sit. He held her hand and just sort of went to sleep. She died first but he never woke up. He went a couple hours after her. I sat and watched them for a while. They both got to die without seeing the other one die. Can you believe that?”

       “That’s pretty good.”

       “So, like I said, I sat and watched them for a long time. I called the hospice nurse in the morning. I had no idea how I was going to move them.

       “She said to call the fire department. She said they would help since he had been a firefighter. So they showed up. They made me laugh. They were talking to him like he was still there, saying ‘Hey Dan, remember this fire, remember that one?’ One of them put a cigar in grandpa’s hand and offered to light it. Then they carried him out still joking around. Later that day they rang the bell.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “It’s something they do, ring the fire station bell.”


       “For the firemen, I mean.”

       She put her glasses back on. I moved my napkin around with my hand for a minute. Then I handed the photograph back to her.

       “So what about the wedding, when should I fly down?” she asked.

       “We don’t know the date yet. I think it’s in May.” It was April 5th, I knew that.

       “Well, tell me as soon as you know.”

       “Yeah, I will.”

       The bill came. I took my wallet out. She paid. My sister did the tip. I put my money back in my wallet and my wallet back in my pants.

      She was a hospice worker now for those who mattered to her. She seemed different. Maybe she had moved past the trap she had been in, the one I got pulled into, held in. There was time passed, but there was still the past itself.

      We stood up and walked out. It was cold. I liked the frost on the sidewalk; the snow sponging the yellow from the streetlight. We passed the sex shop.

       “The longest lasting store on Main Street.” We looked at the display. The mannequins were wearing frilly thongs and Santa hats. “It’s been here forever. All the other stores are gone in like three months, but this place keeps on going,” I said.

       “It used to be down at the other end of Main Street, by the nail place.”

       “Across from McDonald’s?”

       “No, where the hair cutting place is.”

       “Oh yeah, okay.”

       “Back then they sold dance costumes too. It was run by this old lady, Probably 70 years old. Seemed old then, anyway. This one time we went in there for your dance costume for the recital, when you were little,” she said to my sister, “and you grabbed some of those underwear, it’s a kinky place you know, and you put it on like a mask. You said ‘Look, I’m an elephant’ because it has that long thing in the front for the penis to go in, ya’ know?”

       We laughed. And we walked for a while, snow collecting in our hair like age. We continued down Main Street. The clock at Eagle Square showed the hour as we walked past it. And then we were at her car. I thanked them for dinner.

       “Don’t forget to send me the date,” she said, “when you figure it out.”

       “I won’t,” I said.

        We didn’t say I love you or goodbye. I only felt a weight, an addled thing between guilt and something else. Instinct, history, they turned me around and pushed me down the sidewalk. My pulse tolled the seconds. Pulled by a familiar movement I walked to where the book store used to be.

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