From where I stand at the attic gable window, I can see the coroner’s people carrying the woman’s body out to their black van. They handle her as though she were a bundle of old, discarded clothes for the Goodwill, or a broken store window mannequin. One of the men looks at his watch and says something to the others. They laugh in reply and roll the stretcher into the back of the vehicle, slamming the hatch with a hollow thunk that I can hear from my watching place.
As they drive away, I can see the old man who lives at the end of the lane, straighten from his weeding. He stands for a moment, watching the van, then makes shooing motions with his arms as if to usher it past as quickly as possible. He shakes his head then returns to his gardening crouch. I know who this man is, he’s lived at the end of the lane since I was a boy, but I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me.
The black van is almost out of sight now. I watch it until the glint of sunlight catching the back bumper completely disappears before I turn away. The woman they’ve removed was my mother.
I say the words out loud. Experimentally. Waiting for some sudden rush of emotion, grief or triumph, some sense of feeling for the woman who bore me so carelessly, then spit me from her body like a flavorless stick of gum. I wait for the feelings to come. But none surface.
Something scuttles through the dusty boxes behind me; a book falls to the floor. I don’t startle. Fear means something different to me now. It scuttles, but leaves no visible tracks.
* * *
I turn in a slow circle, my eyes moving over the familiar space. The attic looks shrunken; the ceiling joists seem lower, the walls, covered with antique webs, closer than I remember. I look down and notice that my feet seem an unusual distance away. I know where everything is, like a blind man. Nothing has been moved. The peeling dresser with taloned feet is still in the corner; its mirror, covered with a rat-gnawed horse blanket. I covered the mirror myself when I was still small enough to need an old, cane backed chair to stand tip-toe on, because my own reflection in the almost darkness would leap out at me without warning, leaving me to sit, humiliated, in wet pants until she came to unlock the door; sometimes late morning, if the man of the night was one to sleep late.
The traveling men from distant cities came to drink, to dance and to lose themselves for a short time. Those nights, my mother would work her desperate magic, weaving spells of heavy perfume and vice-like thighs to make them stay.
But none ever did.
When they left, the users and the used, she would trudge up the stairs to unlock the attic door, then turn, “change your pants,” she’d say. “Eat something,” she’d say, before disappearing into her room. She expected no response and I offered none.
When I was fifteen, I followed one of the men out of town. He never noticed the silent boy in his wake, but I used his trail to lead me to a new city, where I found the people of the back streets, who recognized me as one of their own. They sheltered me, fed me on garbage and dreams, taught me about the different kinds of survival, inward and outward.
In time I graduated from the school of the alleys and grew into the illusion of a man. I left the back streets and the family of those years to take my new life on the road. But a man can’t move ahead sometimes, until he first goes back to see where he comes from. Where I came from was a locked attic. I needed to go back and find the key.
* * *
This morning I found myself back at the place where I began. I stood before the door for a long time. I wondered if she would answer to my knock. I wondered if she would know who I was this time. I wondered if it was in me to kill.
I raised my fist… then turned the cracked glass knob instead and walked in. The house was not familiar to me, except for the blue/gray door at the top of the stairs. Through the door I could hear a woman singing softly. The cadence of the song matched my footsteps moving up, slow and measured. This time I knocked, but quietly. The way a small child would.
The door didn’t open and inside, the woman stopped singing. A man’s voice began to speak of local news, of storm warnings and road conditions. There was no other sound in the hallway except my own heartbeat.
Detached, I watched my hand reach out and open the door.
She didn’t turn her eyes from the ceiling when I entered the room. And as I stood above her, I saw that those eyes were dry, like the skin on her face. Dusty looking. Her expression was accepting and not afraid. She hadn’t struggled with death. Minutes or hours before she had gone willingly, it seemed.
On the nightstand beside her bed was a radio, playing softly, an empty bottle and a key, marked ‘Home”. I picked it up, then set it back down. Leaving the radio on, I went downstairs to the parlor that I hardly remembered, to the phone.
* * *
The light is changing in the attic now. Twilight is coloring everything gray. I stand looking around for a few minutes more then move to lift the blanket from the dresser mirror. The reflection of myself, so changed and un-childlike, takes me by surprise. I look closer and notice wet streaks on my face and wonder about them as I turn to walk down the attic stairs.
Something scuttles in the shadows behind the dresser. But I don’t startle.