The last time I saw my mother was in Union Square. I was going from an estate sale out in the Mission to my bookstore on Post Street, and I’d phoned her asking if she’d like to meet for brunch. My plan was to fill her full of mimosas, to take her shopping, and then to ever so gently let her know I’d be moving in with her. I’d transferred all my shifts to the new guy, read two books on cancer, sublet my apartment on Nob Hill to a hipster couple who promised not to paint anything, moved some money around in my bank accounts, and picked her up a wheelchair. A maid at the Richmond Senior Living Center had phoned me back, letting me know my mother was willing to meet with me at a table close to the entrance but that it also shouldn’t be too far from the restrooms, and at ten-thirty I spotted her walking into the Tea Garden Court of the Palace Hotel on the arm of a man in a white waiter’s jacket. I’d always called her Carolyn—but as soon as I saw her, I had the impulse to stand up and blurt out Mom across the whole crowded dining room, just like I’d been told not to throughout my life, so that the whole room would know our relationship. She was dressed like a 1960s twenty-something in white knee-high go-go boots and an ancient leather hat, as though she’d just had to bail on someone pronto via her incredibly convenient time machine, without regard for socially accepted norms or conventions. Immediately it became obvious I would need to make my pitch in a way that didn’t cause her too much stress; she was a smaller, frailer woman than the one who’d asked me to leave after repairing her wall heater two Christmases ago. I tucked my napkin between a twosome of milk and honey and rose, smiling, as Carolyn teetered forward and plopped herself down into the lovingly restored dining room chair across from me.
“Oh, God!” she suddenly bellowed out.
“What is it what is it—is there something on the chair?” I asked.
“What is that doing here?” she said, extending a shaky finger toward the gleaming new wheelchair beside me.
My whole life, I’d breathed in my mother the way Oliver Twist would gruel. It was a pernicious blend of Chanel No. 5, Werther’s Caramels, and Folger’s instant coffee.
“Oh that,” I said. “I thought we might do a little shopping after brunch.”
We left the Palace Hotel and headed up Montgomery Street. It was still early, but the sidewalks were already overflowing with mothers pushing strollers, families shopping together, and tourists carrying souvenirs for their loved ones back home. At Geary Street we turned and went in Homespun Comforts. We moved past a configuration of plush teddy bears gathered together like kids on Christmas morning. We went down an aisle of retro-style refrigerators, strong and reliable, their pastel doors opened wide, as if waiting for the groceries the mother had just brought home. I took her into a wall-less display home, past honeyed shelves of vanilla-scented candles, and into a child’s bedroom. Bunk beds were decorated in a folksy ensemble of bunnies and flowers.
“How are you doing on blankets?” I asked. “Are you warm enough?” I reached down and picked up one of the rabbit pillows from the bottom bunk, feeling its soft fabric with my thumbs.
“Put that down,” she said. “People are staring at us.”
“Aw, you’re going to hurt his feelings,” I said, poking the rabbit up over my shoulder at her, its denim overalls making a sandpaper-like sound against my beard.
She began to cough. “Something is making me choke,” she said.
“Something is making you choke?” I asked.
“There must be dust. I can feel it making my throat close.”
The dust thing was something that had been happening for as long as I’d known her, seeming to come on abruptly, forcing her to abandon so many brunches and special occasions. It was, in fact, the reason she often cited for never having set foot in my bookstore. Gnashing my teeth, I grappled around until I found the cold clamps on the sides of her wheelchair.
I helped her out of the offending home, finagling her wheelchair up over the doorjamb and turning it toward the back of the store. At the end of every aisle we passed were these startled-looking paper turkeys with the store’s temporary sale prices. Pretty soon we would have to talk turkey. I slowed down as we came upon a row of flat screens, all showing the same credit card commercial: a giant “rejected” stamp came down over a family and their luggage all huddled together outside a snow-covered motel office; it similarly dashed the dreams of two newlyweds seated across from a travel agent who abruptly rose from his desk and left them speechless; it stamped out the hopes of a single mother who jostled her baby while a landlord with a comb-over crossed his arms and shook his head in exaggerated fashion from behind a white picket fence. I could feel my T-shirt getting wet as thick beads of sweat fell from my eyebrows. I wiped the perspiration from my face with the back of my sleeve and pushed on.
The back area was spacious and high ceilinged with Casablanca fans and piped-in music overhead. We went across a glossy cement floor to the back wall, where the sofa beds were kept. I folded one shut and stepped back from it.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“A hide-a-bed?” she said.
“Why not?” I answered. “It might come in handy.” I kicked off my shoes and sat down, sinking into the soft, feathery bedding like a contented hatchling into its nest.
“Get up from there,” she said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I just want you to be comfortable,” I said. “I don’t want to be walking back from some mom-and-pop shop only to see our couch has been abruptly gifted to a group of affable hoboes outside your apartment.”
“Well you’re wasting your time, because I’m not interested,” she said. She began looking around for some kind of exit or escape, so I leaned forward and took her hand, feeling its roughness there between my own, bringing her attention back to myself on our potential two-seater. This was a nice, respectable couch—there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. I wrinkled my nose and playfully head-motioned her toward the empty place beside me. She tried to wriggle her way free, but on this occasion I refused to acquiesce. What happened next made my head jerk back: Without breaking my gaze, Carolyn lifted her boot and brought it down hard against the tiny arm of the couch. I felt something crack. She pushed herself away from the sofa and went rolling backward as the store went into orbit. “I’ll be waiting outside in the cold until you finish whatever it is you’re doing,” she said. I opened my mouth to respond but could form no words. Collapsing on the couch, I tried to breathe in the calming aroma of fabric softener coming from someplace I could not identify. I studied my reflection in a mirror above the bed: my webbed feet, no longer concealed by industrial-looking wingtips, were tipped awkwardly to one side.
“Can I help you?” said a young guy walking up to me. I sat up and began putting on my shoes. As he got closer he adjusted his vintage glasses, and I recognized him as a customer of Red Barrel Books. About a week earlier I’d helped him fill a box with eight-hundred-bucks’ worth of vintage Playboys, first-edition pulps, and original Eric Stanton stuff.
I laughed at the floor. “No,” I said. “I doubt that you can.”
We went down the street and into a Furniture4Less. The salesgirl was showing some kind of popcorn maker to a husband and wife while their daughter played hopscotch along the aisle.
“How about one of these?” I said, stopping in front of the display model. I pressed a button and watched the red digital display change. “We could have movie nights,” I said.
“I thought you already had one of those,” she said. “And what do you mean we—are you seeing someone?”
“Listen,” I said. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Uh-oh,” she said and rolled her eyes. She had her purse in front of her and kept snapping it open and closed.I sat down on my heels and took her hand. “I’m not sure how to say this,” I began. “I’m hoping it’ll make you happy.” She was avoiding eye contact with me, pressed all the way back in her chair. “I’m going to be moving in with you,” I said. There was just this silence, this long, continuing silence as her face glazed over and she seemed to drift away to another place and time. Then she pushed her eyebrows together, like she was trying to understand what was happening. She asked me to repeat what I’d said again, so I did.
“Just to kind of help around the house,” I added.
She dropped my hand onto her lap and then pushed it away.
“Would you at least give it some thought?” I asked. But she wouldn’t acknowledge me; she just crossed her arms and looked away, like a child refusing to try her asparagus.
Suddenly I needed a cigarette.
“Okay, listen—I’m going to run outside and smoke. I want you to think about what I said, okay?” I positioned her in front of a rack of discounted throw rugs and went outside.
I leaned against a flower stand and lit up, listening to a soft-spoken florist as she doted on her customers, the wholesome smell of flowers mixing with the intrusive stench of my Winfield Light in the wrestling winds. In the store neighboring Furniture4Less, a salesgirl was making her way over to a family sleeping on one of their sofas in the window. They looked foreign to me: They’d leveraged themselves against each other for support, their golden hair splayed across one another, their sun-kissed legs intertwined, so that it became difficult to tell where one family member ended and another one began. Their shoes were off before them, shopping bags and brightly wrapped gifts at their feet. When the salesgirl got to them, she unfurled a blanket and draped it over them. She looked out at me, brought a finger to her lips, and switched off a Tiffany lamp so that my warped reflection was shown against them like one of those needy ghosts you see trying to stowaway in your Doom Buggy as your family exits the Haunted Mansion. I took a last drag and flicked my cigarette into the street.
As I walked back into the store, I could see she had yet to even look up at the rugs. I walked up beside her and began flipping through them. I came to one with a motorcycle theme and stopped.
“How about one of these?” I asked, showing her. “We could start our own motorcycle club, maybe hang a sign-up sheet in the foyer. Shoot, we could even paint flames on the side of your—”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her head tip forward, her glasses tumbling off and clattering across the floor.
“Carolyn?” I said—but she didn’t move. I crouched down beside her and took her hand. For the longest time I just waited there like that, with my chin against my chest, my shoulders slumped. Finally I looked up; her cloudy blue eyes were like two worlds that had been brought to a simultaneous halt. I took a deep breath in through my nose and let it back out again through my mouth. I rolled up my sleeves; I knew what I had to do. I stood up and looked around the store. Her glasses had to be here somewhere. I found them a few feet away and slid them back onto her face. Reaching over to the motorcycle rug, I peeled off a Slightly Irregular sticker. I stuck it on the collar of her blouse and took out my phone. I started walking toward the front doors. A young woman chewing gum answered 911 and introduced herself as Shasta. “I’d like to report a body,” I said. Outside, Union Square shoppers bustled across the park; its cut-short hedges and dark greenery appearing quite foreign now in the setting sun. I gave Shasta a full description as well as her location.
“And who is this?” she asked.
I waited behind a young woman zipping up her son’s windbreaker. When the light changed she stood up, took his hand, and started across the street with him.
“What?” I asked.
“Who is this person?”
“Oh,” I said, “I have no idea,” and walked across Geary with the woman and her son toward my car.