my hand fits right into Hers
all the way down the stairs
fast as i can to keep up with Her yellow dress
then stops in the air when She turns around
it’s the best
especially when we walk along Fourteenth Street
and all the way down Second Avenue
people smile at us
first the pickle man moving the water around
in that giant barrel with the giant fork
looking to get the best dill for us to share
then we stop at Sammy’s to get meat
he smiles at Her more than all the others
and always asks me to read the words
in the pictures on his walls
he says i’m a very smart three year old
when he talks he makes Her laugh
then he gets a hot dog from the big glass case
and asks does the little doll want a treat today
i look at Her and She’s happy
so i say yes
if i stand next to Her
with my face right on Her yellow dress
i can hear the stiff stuff crackle underneath
when She moves
maybe She’ll make me one just like it
so we can be twins
except my dark hair isn’t beautiful golden
The clock on my nightstand says two thirty-three in the morning when the phone rings. “Ronnie!” my mother is whispering into the receiver. “¡Están aquí! They are here! They are coming in!” This is her third call tonight. She doesn’t remember the others – have I seen her slippers, do I know where Laura is − each more anxious than the one before. Now she is desperate. “Por favor mi’ja, ven. Come help me.”
I am at her house in fifteen minutes. Despite the single digit temperature outside, the door is ajar. It looks like every light in house is on, competing with the holiday decorations of the other houses on the street. My mother is at the top of the center hall steps. She is in her frayed nightgown, barefoot, one hand on the railing, the other clutched to her chest. Her hair is loose and tangled. As soon as she sees me she hurries down the steps to me. “Ronnie!”
I open my arms to receive her and feel something hard pressing against me. “What do you have there, Mom?” She reaches into her nightgown and pulls out a stick, about a foot and a half long with a jagged-edge on one end, probably broken off a broom.
“I am going to find them!” She is loud now, nearly wailing. “Están escondidos. They cannot hide from me!”
In a second my sister appears behind my mother. “Drop it! Lunatic!” she yells. Laura’s face is pale, her eyes small. My mother swerves toward her. I grab the stick out of my mother’s hand and slide it along the floor toward the dining room. Laura circles around our mother to my side of the hall. She is in a tee shirt and long johns, also barefoot, and as panicked as my mother. Her hands are at her side, in fists. My mother’s head is down, clutching her midriff, bent before her daughters.
“Please! There are men here! Get them out!” She pulls at her hair. Laura moves closer, directly behind me now.
“She’s a fucking maniac!” This isn’t Laura’s usual daunting yell meant to overpower an opponent, but a frantic supplication. I don’t know my sister like this. I want to help her. I want to help my mother. Who first? How? I am caught between them, heart racing. I make an effort to speak as steadily, as neutrally as I can.
“Laura, she’s hallucinating.”
“I don’t give a crap! It’s three in the morning. She’s been at this for hours!”
“¡Ayúdame! They are upstairs. Look, Ronnie.” My mother is turned around toward the stairs. I step closer.
“I am helping you, Mom. Right now. I’ve come here to help you.”
“Yeah? You’re going to help her?” Laura’s voice cracks behind me and she begins to cough. She keeps talking, struggling through the spasms. “She’s putting on a show. Don’t you see? She’s a fruit cake!”
I turn to my sister and reach toward her. “Laura, do you need help?”
“Leave me alone!”
“¡ Ahí van! Look at them!” My mother points toward her bedroom. She is shaking.
“What men? What the hell is she saying? There aren’t any men here! Stop this act!”
Now I want Laura to shut up. I want her to be my big sister and, lead the way, not fight me.
“This isn’t acting.” I’ve raised my voice. I’m scolding her over my shoulder. I’ve forgotten that my mother’s doctor predicted Laura would vehemently deny this disease, precisely because she’s lived with my mother all her life, because the loss would be different for her than for me. I don’t care. I scold her again. “Can’t you see Mom is suffering?”
“Suffering? I’m the one that’s suffering!”
I coil around to look at my sister. She is breathing through her mouth. She has released her fists, her hands fallen alongside her body. Without her high heels, she seems very small. She looks haggard. Only her broad shoulders contain strength. She is a motionless girl in oversized shoulder pads. I look away. I want to hide, not let her know I’ve seen her vulnerability.
“Rápido! They are coming in the windows!” My mother crouches to the floor. I go to her. She sees me and jumps to her feet. She moves to the stairs again, pointing up. “Ahí! En el cuarto de Alicia!”
Laura slaps her thighs, the way I do when I feel beaten, and cries, “When is this crap going to end?”
Again I modulate my voice, this time to calm myself. I must help these women. They are my women, the only family other than my children that I have left. “Laura, call an ambulance.”
“Never! I’m not having a scene in the middle of the street. I live here.”
“All right. Call her doctor.”
“At this hour? What is that genius going to do to help?”
My mother grabs my shirt and pulls me with her as she starts to climb the stairs. I don’t resist. I call down to my sister who stands at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. “These men are real to her, Laura.”
“Hallucinations my foot! You’re just indulging her.”
“Where, Mom? Show me.”
“Aquí.” My mother is whispering again, tiptoeing into the room that used to be Alicia’s, with me in tow. The twin beds are overturned, both mattresses and box springs flung over the sides of the beds. The closet door is open. Girls’ clothing is strewn on the floor, skirts, slacks, dresses, neutral-colored and unadorned. A few of the hems are visible, basted with satin ribbon and double folds, the mark of my mother’s sewing. I think of my little sister living here in this room two decades ago, a teenager wearing reconstructed hand-me-downs, before she moved to the Midwest, before I was allowed to enter this house. I put my arm around my mother’s shoulder and lead her, still attached to my shirt, around the mattress pile to the open closet.
“See, Mom. Nothing. No one. They’re not here anymore. The men have gone.” She seems briefly satisfied, then turns and pulls me out into the corridor.
We cross the hall and enter David’s room, still intact. She lets go of me and moves quickly to the bed and, in one swift and astonishing motion, turns the box spring and mattress over the side. She stands for a few seconds looking through the empty bed frame at the carpet. She moves to the chest of drawers. A large telescope sits on top. She’s told me before that it was David’s favorite toy; he spent hours looking out into the sky through it. She pulls out one drawer from the dresser and empties it on the floor. She does the same with the others. The telescope doesn’t budge. She goes to the closet and reaches above her head to pull down the clothing hung there. Her eyes are wide open, her jaw clenched. She isn’t saying anything. She is all motion, pulling, yanking, throwing. I repeat myself, slowly, loud enough for her to listen. “See, Mom, they’re not here anymore. No men. They’ve gone away.”
I realize I’ve lost track of Laura. I don’t see her or hear her. I don’t dare turn away. I call out as loudly as I can without startling my mother. “Laura?”
“Leave me alone!” It sounds like she’s in Alicia’s room. Maybe she’s cleaning up. My mother pulls us out of David’s room. She heads down the hall, her chest heaving, but I don’t try to stop her. I recognize my own, old panic. The kind I felt for her once – so did Laura, we all did – when we waited for her to turn the key in the door, not knowing what mood she’d be in when she walked in. But this is more than panic. There’s no way I can stop her unless I overpower her physically, and I won’t do that. Even Laura hasn’t tried that. And Laura will never call an ambulance. My mother will have to exhaust her terror. All I can do is interrupt it, make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.
Laura reappears. We’re in the room Alex used as a study when he was alive. Pictures of him with Alicia and David line the wall over his desk. The scene repeats itself: my mother overturns the sofa cushions, spills drawers, empties the closet. Laura yells; I offer reassurances. When she’s done, my mother heads for her own bedroom. I notice she’s walking slower. She’s getting tired.
At the end of the hall, she stops abruptly and looks around. She sees the upholstered chair outside her bedroom and slumps into it, hands on her lap, head down. I stand near and watch her until her chest stops heaving. I notice her hairline is moist from sweat. I kneel on the floor beside her and carefully take her hand. It is cool, a good sign. Her body is regulating itself. She could be anyone now, a woman in a waiting room, or on a bus, weary, disappointed, lost. Laura’s footsteps pound her retreat up to her bedroom in the attic. I wait with my mother. I stroke her hair. Silence settles in by degrees, until the house is mute, no clocks tick, nothing creaks, not even the refrigerator purrs.
“Mom, would you like a glass of water?”
She doesn’t look up. “No, thank you, mi’ja.”
“Can you get up? Let’s go into your room. It’s nearly your bedtime.” I glance at my watch. It’s four-thirty. She can still get some sleep in before sunrise. Maybe we all can.
I help her to her feet. She lets out a small groan and moves gingerly again, unsteady. It is cold in her room, colder than the rest of the house, but I am relieved to see that her bed is undamaged, drawers are in their place, and the closets are closed. I lead her to her bed and help her in. I go to her bathroom and get her a glass of water. She drinks it eagerly. “Tengo sed.” I bring more water to quench her thirst. When she is finished, I pull the covers up and sit next to her. She is calm. She smiles. I am exhausted.
“Ronnie,” she speaks tenderly.
“What are you doing here?”
I take a breath. “I came for a visit. Now it’s late. It’s time to get to sleep.”
“She’s upstairs in her room.”
She makes a circle at her temple with one arthritic finger. “I think Laura has lost her mind.”
“How so?” I hear my absurd question and ready myself for the answer.
“She brings men in here. No le digas. If she knows I told you that, she will be very angry.”
“All right, Mom. I won’t tell her.” I should let it go at that, but she is so calm, and I am curious about this newest apparition. “When did this happen?”
“De noche. Every night, she gets naked and brings men in here.”
“Aquí.” She points to the foot of her bed. “Right here.”
“Here, on this bed? And where are you when this happens?”
“Right here where you see me. I do not want to see such things.” She puts one hand up to shield her face and turns away. “I close my eyes. But I hear them. Terrible things.” She looks back at me and whispers. “Sex.”
“Mom, do you know who these men are? How many are there?”
She shrugs her shoulders. She shows me four fingers of her hand.
“Do they speak to you? Do they try to hurt you?”
She shakes her head “No. They do not look at me. Only at Laura.”
“Did this happen tonight?”
“Yes. Earlier, before you arrived, they came in here. She brings them in.”
“When this goes on, does Laura say anything?”
“No. She only laughs, la desgraciada. She has no shame. All that Catholic school and this is what she does. Do not let her fool you. Doble cara. She is one way during the day and another at night.”
I’ve had enough. I need to change the subject. I look around the room. On the nightstand beside her radio is a small blue book. I turn it over to see its title, La Santa Biblia. I am surprised. I wouldn’t have expected my mother to keep a Bible close by. I pick it up and show it to her.
“Mom, is this yours?”
“The Holy Bible. In Spanish.”
“Do you read it?” I know she doesn’t. The disease took away her ability to read months ago.
I go with my impulse. “Could we read a little of it together?”
“I did not know you were religious, Ronnie. Are you planning to become a nun?”
I laugh, and I can’t believe I can actually laugh again. “No, not at all. I thought it would be interesting to hear the Bible in Spanish. I’ve never read it in Spanish.”
“I read the Bible every day in boarding school. It was very comforting.”
“Let’s see.” I thumb through the little book. “What is your favorite part?”
“Any psalm in particular?”
“All of them.”
“All right, then.” I open to the first psalm I find. I begin to read out loud. “Salmo 41. Salmo de David. Bienaventurado el que piensa en el pobre: En el día malo lo librará Jehová…” I do a mental simultaneous translation: Psalm 41. Psalm of David. Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble…
My mother interrupts. “El Señor lo preservará, y lo mantendrá vivo, y el será bendecido sobre la tierra, y no será entregado a la voluntad de sus enemigos.” The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, and he shall be blessed upon the earth, and he will not be delivered unto the will of his enemies.
I flip through the pages to find another psalm. “Salmo 59. Líbrame de mis enemigos, o Dios mío…” Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord.
I stop, to see if she continues. She does. “…Ponme en salvo de los que contra mí se levantan.” Defend me from those that rise up against me.
“Mom, do you know all the psalms by memory?
“Which psalm did you pray most?”
“The twenty-third. The most popular one.”
“Say it for me Mom.”
“El señor es mi pastor. Nada me faltará. En lugares de delicados pastos me hará descansar…”
I listen to my mother pray. I watch her lips construct the words she has secretly depended on all her life for comfort and I have never heard her say before. Her hands are folded over her chest. Her placid face belongs to someone else, not the tormented woman of half an hour ago. I let myself know this woman who is here now, for these few minutes. She is my mother, too.
When she is finished, I kiss her forehead and tell her I am leaving.
“Mi’ja,” she says, softly. “Be careful. Que La Virgen te acompañe.”
I accept my mother’s blessing and leave her. Before I go, I listen at the bottom of the attic stairs. There is no sound from Laura’s room. I walk into each of the other bedrooms and turn out the lights.