In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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They call at all hours, asking for her vote, my dead wife. She was a registered independent, and our home is in a swing state. When we moved here, she was not an independent, and the state was unyielding. But people change. States, too. In the meantime, elections.
“Every four years,” she used to say, “I’m the most beautiful girl at the party.”
They call me, too. Nowhere near as often, and when they ask for me, I simply hang up. My wife would talk to them. You would not have considered her chatty, but she always had time for a salesperson. She would tell the caller she was undecided and challenge them to persuade her to support their candidate. She’d hear them out — a steady flow of Hmmm and You don’t say. Is that what he supports? — before spurning them and backing the opposition.
“It’ll make them work harder on the next call,” she would tell me.
“If everyone did like you,” I said, “one side might lose hope.”
“If you need hope to do your job, then you’re probably not good at it. Or doing it for the right reasons.”
“Winning’s a pretty good reason,” I said.
“If winning is your reason, you don’t deserve to win.”
I see now that this was how she won all our fights: by never caring about winning them. Or maybe that’s too simple. Maybe she did care about winning, but she cared more about proving that her conviction eclipsed mine.
“Better hell than purgatory,” she said the night before she died, and I know she meant it. The only thing I’m not sure of is whether she was telling me where she’d rather end up or what I needed to do once she was no longer around to do it for me.
I disconnect my phone on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, when Social Services brings my granddaughter over from foster care. I keep forgetting her name, this woman who watches me watch my granddaughter ignore us both. It’s not my fault. My wife remembered names. Slyly whispered them to me when ambushed by pleasantries at the supermarket or a university function.
My granddaughter barely speaks. Her name is Effie, which in Greek means “well-spoken.” Maybe in Greece she would be. Names aren’t expected to match the person. If they were, we’d be named upon our death, when someone would have a stab in the dark at getting it right.
The speechless well-spoken girl. I am supposed to love her, but I don’t. Her face terrifies me. My daughter at her age looked like a hard-fought compromise, with my wife’s narrow face and my stocky frame. My granddaughter has plump cheeks and a steep forehead and is nearly as white as I am. Had my wife looked like this, she would have been chair of the American Studies Department, not everyone’s favorite associate professor. Had my wife looked like this, my parents would have attended our wedding.
Or maybe my parents would have found a different reason to shun me. Maybe my wife was everyone’s favorite associate professor because she maintained a dignified remove from the crusade for academic promotion. The simplest answer is sometimes just the simplest answer.
“. . . given your age,” the caseworker says, and I realize I missed the first part of her sentence, do not know if it was a question or an indictment.
“Of course,” I say, “given my age,” and then spend the next two hours sifting through Legos, waiting for my granddaughter to notice me, grasping for words to answer the silence.
I do not tell them, these eager callers, that she’s dead. I like to hear them talk, see how much they know about their candidates, which is really how little they know. No one really knows anything, which is all I know for certain. The trick is letting them speak long enough to prove it. I learned this from my wife, the last person who knew everything.
They ask what issues are most important to me and offer four choices.
“What if the issue most important to me is something else?” I ask.
“You can say, ‘Other,’ ” a woman tells me.
They ask if my wife knows the address of her polling station. They ask if she knows when early voting begins. They ask if she knows how to vote by mail. They tell me this is the election of our lifetime, the election for our future.
“Which one is it?” I ask. “The election of our lifetime or the election for our future?”
“It’s both,” a man says. “History will judge us on this vote. We’ll have to answer to our children.”
“When isn’t that true?” I ask. “When are children ever satisfied with our answers?”
“Exactly!” he says. “Couldn’t have put it better myself.”
During each supervised visit I hunt for an inkling of recognition. Effie acts neither more nor less comfortable around me. I should not resent this, both because she is four and because I am no more or less comfortable around her. Still, I do resent this, because I am trying to reach her. I buy peanut-butter cookies and chocolate milk and affect a voice like a rusty slide whistle. For better or worse, that should be enough to earn a child’s goodwill.
Then again, for better or worse is usually for worse.
Though silent, Effie is quick to smile. When she smiles, she reminds me of no one, and I am at ease. Her development was delayed. Is delayed? I am not sure if it is past or present, this stunting of her growth; if the effects of in utero drugs remain this long after the drugs have left the child’s system. The caseworker probably knows the proper verb tense. She has spoken to the doctors, to the court, even to my daughter, who was judged unfit to be Effie’s parent and sentenced to three years in medium security. The caseworker spoke to my wife shortly before she became my dying wife. My wife had called this woman to say we would adopt Effie, the grandchild I had not known existed, and raise her until our daughter, whose name I had not spoken in ten years, was fit to be a mother in word and deed.
I found out about my wife’s petition for visitation rights a few days before my dying wife turned into my dead wife. I had never heard of such a thing: grandparents receiving supervised visitation when their child cannot be trusted with her own child. It doesn’t exist in our old state; in this one it is, if not common, at least not uncommon. That’s how the lawyer I did not know my wife was paying from a checking account I did not know she kept explained it to me: If not common, at least not uncommon.
It will be me who adopts Effie, or it will be no one. Rather, it will be me or it could be anyone — anyone except my daughter. The lawyer told me this, too. The state will never restore my daughter’s parental rights. “Not given her history,” the lawyer said. He expressed condolences on my wife’s passing, emphasized how compassionate and shrewd he thought she was. Then he invoiced me for the phone call.
I fumble with Legos until the caseworker tells us time is up. Effie uses the bathroom before they leave. The caseworker asks Effie if she needs help. Effie simply shuts the door and leaves us to linger like code breakers awaiting a transmission.
“We will need that additional documentation soon,” the caseworker tells me. “If you decide to move forward.”
There came a point in my life when forward ceased to mean “forward.” It meant something closer to “down” or “beneath.” I don’t know when I reached that point. Probably the last time I actually moved forward.
She reminds me about the physical exam I still need to take. Financial statements. Legal documents, including my birth certificate and my wife’s death certificate.
“The reference letters are particularly important,” she says, as if my granddaughter’s life were an internship. “A stable family environment is critical for a child with Effie’s challenges.”
There’s a tone people take when they believe they know your worst self. I did not give up on my daughter. I lost her, three times: first to illness; then to addiction; and lastly to cowardice — mine, as I bent to her mother’s ironclad will.
My wife. Who forbade me from genuflecting before the promised redemption of a new pill regimen. Who forbade me from trusting our daughter with another dollar, because she’d only snort it or plunge it into her veins. Who forbade me from unlocking the door when our daughter pounded on it in the dead of night, instead commanding me to curse her back into the shadows. Who urged me to call 911 when our daughter rammed through the storm window and ransacked our home like it had never been hers. It was my wife who told me we were moving — who, when I opposed the idea, told me she would leave me behind, because she did not deserve to be tortured by a child she could not save.
“Everything is in the works,” I say to the caseworker. “There’s nothing I want more than for that little girl to have the best life.”
“That’s what we all want,” she says. “Of course, wanting it is the easy part.”
My daughter was almost president. Would’ve been a damn good one, too. I can attest to that, despite remaining a tad murky on the duties of student-council elected officials. You don’t need to know a lot about a job to know your kid fits the bill. My daughter, before she became unmentionable, was remarkable: an honor student among honor students. She would read through the night if I neglected to confiscate her flashlight. I offhandedly mentioned this to a colleague whose children were conclusively not honor students. He regarded me with envy for a long time. Until he didn’t.
I’d forgotten this. In truth I’ve forgotten it many times. My wife would remind me of such memories, returning them the way you would a stranger’s lost wallet. This began not long after we moved here. Barely a hundred miles from our old home, a stone’s throw over the state line. I felt guilty at the ease with which happiness found me. For a long time I credited the newness of our surroundings. Slowly I came to realize that this happiness had nothing to do with the rosebushes or our kitchen patio or any natural beauty. Rather, it was our newness in the eyes of those we encountered: neighbors who had no recollection of police cars parked cockeyed outside our home, who had never gawked at my stocky frame collapsed on my daughter’s as I tried to anchor her in reality in the public theater of our driveway.
My wife regretted our decision — her decision — to come here, though for a long time I did not know that, could not have known it, what with the knack she developed for conjuring our daughter without uttering her name.
“Reminds me of the canoe we rented that Memorial Day on the lake,” she said about something we saw on TV. “Remember that? What a beautiful trip.”
I did, vaguely, a halcyon long weekend at the outset of a new pill cocktail. Three glorious days sandwiched between our daughter scribbling one hundred incoherent pages in response to a three-hundred-word English class assignment on renewable resources and sprinting naked around our block in search of the midnight sun.
Or was that the trip two weeks after our daughter accused her best friend of stealing her term paper and a month before she dropped out of the student-council election, convinced the principal was conspiring to rig the election in favor of a student who was really Black?
After we moved here, my wife became a person who remembered every fragment and shading of hope; and I became a person who wanted to forget every instance of hope dashed. These may sound like the same person, but they aren’t. No more so than two people who want to get to a store catty-corner, and one trots across the street easy as pie while the other does an about-face and circumnavigates the globe.
My wife gradually remembered peaceful vacations and happy birthdays and upbeat prognoses from specialists our medical insurance wouldn’t cover. I forgot the directions to every psychiatrist’s office and support-group meeting. The names my daughter was called, the names of the kids who called her those names, the names of the parents who taught their children the names they called my daughter. The showers my daughter refused to take. The meals she refused to eat. The pills I force-fed her. The nights she slept on the cold basement floor because she believed her thoughts were buttressing our home’s foundation. The hospitals we committed her to.
I do my best to keep forgetting, but sometimes I remember. I remember it all, and I hate myself. Hate my wife. Hate our daughter. The three of us united once more in this damning.
I can’t say I am surprised my wife was in touch with our daughter. I can’t say I’m surprised that at some point she divulged our whereabouts, leaving a bread-crumb trail for our daughter to follow. I can’t say I’m surprised that the daughter I’d thought was a hundred miles away was in the next county over when she was arrested buying drugs outside of the same hardware store where I bought birdseed. (When we first moved here, I thought I could become someone who cared about birds.) I can’t say I am surprised Effie was discovered the next morning in a locked car outside the Waffle House where I cheated on many diets. I am beyond surprise. You might think this would protect me, but it just means I should have seen it all coming.
Honestly I wonder when my wife was not in touch with our daughter. How long it took her to discover it was not our daughter we needed to flee but our conversations about her. The enduring secret to successful parenting is parenting in secret. She knew we were grandparents, knew our daughter had had a baby with one of her drug dealers, who OD’d six months after Effie’s birth. Surely my wife sent money. Surely that money was spent on drugs bought from a new dealer. Surely my wife helped in other ways that she also kept from me.
I don’t lose sleep pondering how much of my family transpired behind my back. Strange as it may sound, what keeps me up at night (aside from my acorn-size bladder) is the thought that I was sharing a bed with someone’s grandmother. It doesn’t bother me, but I was not as vain as my wife. She must have regarded me differently, knowing I was a grandfather; desired me less, the way an antique ought to be admired but not handled. She hid it well, I’ll give her that. Hid it all the way to the end.
The TV news tells me what will happen — in this state, in that race, on such-and-such ballot proposition. They tell me who will do it and to whom it will be done. They know everyone, somehow, the news people. They have kaleidoscopic maps that segment and partition and fricassee the country into 435 congressional districts, 3,006 counties, 476 Whole Foods, 664 Cracker Barrels. Altars of statistics to which I freely bow because I, like most Americans, am afraid of math. I know this not because I know most Americans; I know myself and saw a poll that confirmed my membership in the community of this terror. I remember when the news used to tell me what happened yesterday. I liked it better then, all that calamity in the rearview mirror. Now everyone is a weatherman, forecasting sunny skies or nuclear winter.
My wife did not watch that kind of news, the kind that divines the future. She read the papers, until those, too, were more tomorrow than yesterday, at which point she stuck to biographies of ancient conquerors: Artemisia I, Cleopatra, Nefertiti. “I’ll take a historian over a prophet any day,” she told me once, after the man on TV said something that made me want to crash my fist through the screen. Something I no longer remember but still feel in my bones.
The caseworker produces a ziplock bag bursting with Legos from a pocketbook deep enough to smuggle a toddler in. Effie does not engage. She stares at the ceiling, rubs her hands together, smells them. I take the Legos. Snapping the blocks together wears on the joints in my hand, and I want to laugh at how ridiculous I feel. It is pathetic, and I am pathetic, and my wife, too, was pathetic if she thought we could raise this child or any child.
“I really liked what you built last time,” I tell Effie. “It was something special. I’ll bet if I got you more Legos, you could build a whole city.”
Her cheeks fill, and her lips pucker, as though she’s swishing mouthwash. At first I feel as if my home is a waiting room, and then I feel as if I am the waiting room: a somber void in which you idle away hours until someone calls your name and labels your suffering, catalogues the motions you must go through to delude yourself with hope.
“Remember why we’re here, Effie?” the caseworker asks. “Who is this? Is this Grandpa?” The caseworker’s grin is forced. I wonder if she has ever smiled like this in front of the mirror or a friend who likes her enough to tell her how maniacal she looks. “Can you say, ‘Grandpa’?” The caseworker’s eyes swerve between Effie and me, and for a moment I am unsure which of us she is addressing.
“Say, ‘Grandpa.’ ”
Effie opens her mouth so wide I can count her baby teeth — can estimate how much the tooth fairy would pony up for the whole kit and caboodle — but she doesn’t release a sound.
They tell me my business, the callers hunting for my dead wife’s vote. My faith is my business. My guns are my business. My body is my business. My business is my business. If I truly believe all that, then my vote should belong to them. My wife’s vote.
“Do you think your wife’s still undecided?” a peppy young man asks.
“Never,” I say. “It’s just sometimes I’m the last to know.”
He laughs. “My dad would say the same thing.” He pauses. “Will your wife be home soon, or should I make a note to call back later?”
The caseworker sends a follow-up e-mail. “Reference letters” is underlined and boldfaced. Everyone who can vouch for my character is either retired or dead. The retired ones aren’t the types who would impress an interviewer, and there will be interviews, because no one’s word on paper is worth the paper it’s written on. They are not bad people, our retired neighbors. Actually they’re quite decent. Welcomed us into the neighborhood and quickly gathered what questions not to ask. It’s no small part of why my wife preferred their company to that of her colleagues, the tenure-track professors who exhibited their progressivism like it was an Airedale terrier competing for Best in Show. A neighbor who adored my wife once referred to her as a “Negro,” and her son, mortified, admonished his mother. My wife admonished him, this grown man, more sensitive than astute, who believed his was the only speakable history.
You would think I wouldn’t need these character letters, that Grandpa gets bumped to the front of the line for custody. That’s true in the state we used to live in, more or less. But they have different laws here. Different guidelines. That’s probably wise. If I screwed up one kid, what makes them think I won’t screw up that kid’s kid? That’s what I wish I had asked my wife.
I ask my neighbor who says “Negro” for such a reference. She does not say yes or no. She asks if I am sure I can do it alone — and then tells me I wouldn’t be alone, of course, that everyone would pitch in. Then she asks, “But can you do it alone?” I tell her I can. She says first she wants to discuss it with her son, the one who does not say “Negro.” He is a lawyer. Two summers ago he grilled me a hot dog at a barbecue, even toasted the bun without my asking. He visits his mother often, and I am sure he will dissuade her from getting involved. My generation was for doing. His generation likes to watch and tut-tut. They know the answers without ever having braved the questions.
The next week is cold, and gas prices are up, and the grocery store is farther than it should be, so I haven’t bought peanut-butter cookies or chocolate milk. Effie doesn’t seem to mind, though the caseworker does. Effie colors, and I ask her what she is coloring, and the caseworker tells her to tell me what she is coloring. We do this again and again, a quaint circle of hell benevolently disrupted by the caseworker’s ringing phone. She answers it and quickly grows stern, then excuses herself, stepping outside through the patio door. She yells at someone. Briefly grows quiet. Steps farther from the house and yells louder.
Effie’s coloring persists, swerving lines and blobs of color.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. “What is it?”
Her crayon slows, and she looks around, as if searching for the caseworker.
“Do you need something?”
She stares at me. Her eyes make me feel small.
“Are you hungry? Thirsty? Potty?”
The last one earns a glimmer of awareness. I don’t think to offer to help until after she’s in the bathroom. It’s taking a while, so I go to let the caseworker know where we are, because it seems responsible. At the patio door I wait for her to see me. She doesn’t. Her speech is rapid and laden with questions. I can’t tell if she is furious or dejected. Working to save or salvage.
I return to the bathroom and knock on the door, asking Effie if she’s OK. She does not answer. I knock again. No answer. I barge in and find it empty. I check the hall closet, under the couch, the guest bedroom that has never housed a guest. I call her name. Call it again louder, and when I hear my voice, I barely recognize it. I stand still, the stillest I have ever stood, without breath or heartbeat.
There is a pattering from the second floor, a noise I would otherwise have assumed was a light rain or an obese mouse.
Upstairs Effie stands at the end of the hallway, just outside my bedroom. All the doors along the way are open, as if she has given herself a tour.
Approaching, I realize she is gazing at a portrait that has appeared to me like a pattern of the wallpaper for nearly as long as we have lived here. My wife is young in the photo, though I don’t remember how young. Young enough to be alive. Beaming in a way that suggests we were still happy.
I kneel beside my granddaughter. “Had yourself a little adventure, huh?”
She looks at me, at the portrait. “Mommy,” she says.
“No, not Mommy,” I say, though I see it, that gorgeous blade of a face.
“Mommy,” she says.
“Grandma,” I say. “That’s Grandma.”
“Mommy!” Her eyes well up, and she stomps her foot. “Mommeeee!” she screams, and I know what she will look like in the thrust of a manic episode. I know what she will look like depressed. I know what she will look like in the emergency room, being loaded onto a gurney. Will look like? Would look like? I don’t know the proper verb tense.
I drop to my knees and wrap my arms around her as pain rattles my joints. “Yes,” I say. “Mommy,” I say. I hold her and pray she’ll calm down, and when she does, I momentarily believe in God.
The caseworker finds us back at the kitchen table. A somber rage has fixed itself on her face. She is a strong woman, I can tell. Unafraid of being disliked or resented. I feel guilty there are no peanut-butter cookies.
I ask if everything is OK.
“Unfortunately no,” she says without elaboration. I wonder if anyone is hurt. I wonder if anyone is dead. I wonder if it is a parent or a child. I wonder, if I had been that parent, would whatever happened still have happened?
As the caseworker helps Effie put on her coat, I tell her I’m going forward with the adoption. That she has nothing to worry about. That I know what is best for Effie, and what is best is me.
I undergo the physical exam and spend two hours printing and hole-punching and organizing my modest bank statements into a three-ring binder. I call the neighbor and ask if she has spoken to her son about the reference letter.
“He’s thinking about it,” she says. “He just wants to make sure it’s OK.”
“How does he plan to do that?”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“Could I have his number?”
There’s a long silence. “I’ll give him your number. How’s that sound?”
I wonder if she still uses the word Negro. I wonder if it sounds different to her now.
“Sounds like I don’t have a choice,” I say, softening my tone with a laugh.
She laughs, too. “It’ll be fine,” she tells me. “I promise, whatever happens, these things have a way of working out.”
They tell me, these callers, why their candidate’s opponent is evil: He doesn’t believe in the Constitution. She doesn’t believe in liberty. He wants to turn America into Cuba. She wants to turn America into Venezuela. He wants to sacrifice our values. She wants to sacrifice our sovereignty.
“How does America become Venezuela?” I ask a frenzied man who sounds nearly as old as me.
“By forgetting who we are as Americans.”
“Ever been to Venezuela?”
“Hell, no,” he says, “and I never will.”
“What are you going to say to my wife when she tells you she studied there in college and loved every second of it?”
“She came back here all the same, though,” he replies. “Back to America. And I bet every Venezuelan she met wanted to come back with her. See, that’s what’s on the line in this election. That’s what makes America America.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“No matter where else in the world you live, you’d give it all up in the blink of an eye to be one of us.”
The neighbor and her son appear at my door. She stands with hands clasped. I can’t tell if he is somber or if his eyebrows just need trimming. They have talked it over. They had concerns, he explained, and were hesitant to get involved.
“I thought about how hard it must’ve been for you and your wife back then,” he says. “I’ve read about children like your daughter: how society makes it harder for them, and they can’t get the care they need.”
“My daughter was well cared for,” I say. “We did everything for her.”
“I am not saying otherwise. As we all know, sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do if everyone else is doing something different. Your wife was a great woman. Overcame a lot, I bet. Your granddaughter deserves to know her legacy.”
I wonder how much they know and how much they only think they know; what my wife told them and what they’ve imagined and if he even realizes the difference, this man who doesn’t know a goddamn thing and is completely right. I want to slug him until I see the letter, printed on the letterhead of a law firm that charges more an hour than I receive from Social Security in a month.
I want to call him a bastard.
“Thank you,” I say.
An arrogant jackass.
“Thank you so much.”
A self-righteous crusader prick.
“This means more to me than you’ll ever know.”
I ’m watching the news channel I loathe when the phone rings.
“Are you telling me to vote for that son of a bitch,” I ask, “or the other son of a bitch?”
An automated recording replies: This is a collect call from an inmate at the Milton Valley Correctional Facility. To accept the charges, press 1; to refuse the charges, press 2.
I press 1.
You may now begin talking, the automated voice tells me.
“Hello?” I say.
There is background chatter. If I didn’t know better, I would think the call was coming from an office or a school. I say my daughter’s name for the first time in a decade, in a lifetime, and realize I don’t know what it means — “snow” or “charity” or “kindness.”
Her breathing sounds husky. I wonder what she looks like — really, what she doesn’t look like. How faintly she resembles the Polaroid I carry in my mind.
“I’ve been spending time with Effie,” I say. It feels good to say this, to hear it, as if it became real once spoken aloud. “My application is ready. Caseworker’s finally in my corner.”
She is sobbing. “No,” she says.
“You can’t,” she says.
“Please,” she says. “Please.”
My daughter is a mother who wants what’s best for her child, and she knows she is not what’s best, and neither am I. We are not those people. We know what’s best lives somewhere else, far away from our impulses.
“Mom wanted us to have her,” I say.
“Mom wanted her,” she says. “Not you.”
“No,” I say.
“Mom wanted me,” she says. “Not you.”
“That’s a goddamn lie! Shut up for a second and listen to me!”
“Mom is dead,” she says. “It’s just you.”
I want to crawl through the phone and shout in her face how wrong she is, that it’s never been just me, that “just me” died the minute I met her mother, then died again when she was born, and died a third death when I first saw Effie. But I have no words. My thoughts scramble, and I recall a song I once loved by a long-dead country singer. For thirty years I thought the chorus went, “I saw you at the speedway / all alone, dressed to ride.” Then one night, while I was touring strip-mall parking lots and public parks popular among drug dealers and their clientele, the song came on the radio, and I heard the familiar sound of those plucked nickel strings. I couldn’t bring myself to sing along, so I just listened: “I saw you at the speedway / all alone, dressed in my pride.”
“She’s my blood,” I say, and I know at once it is the wrong thing to say, something my wife would never have said. “It’s different now.”
The inmate has hung up. The call is finished.
In bed I close my eyes and silently croon along to that country ditty, that long-dead singer’s voice and mine coiling, the two versions of the chorus bleeding together. After a few dozen turns, it’s hard to tell singer from listener. Real lyric from lyric misheard.
I tell them things, too, these callers. I tell them the secret to a lifelong marriage is never wanting a divorce at the same time as your spouse. I tell them that death is mostly paperwork, and if you truly care about the surviving spouse, don’t send a casserole; send a notary. I tell them we should all pay more attention to student-council elections; they are the truest wellspring of reform.
I tell them sometimes the simplest answer is simply the answer.
I tell them people die. States, too. In the meantime, forward.
I clicked on Douglas Silver’s short story “America America” [December 2021] by mistake while searching for mental-health essays, but once I started it, I just kept reading. The story is so convincing, I was sure it was nonfiction.
I thought about sending the piece to my dad, who was my caretaker for nearly twelve years after I developed mental-health problems. Silver’s depiction of guilt, remorse, and self-doubt resonated with me and helped me see caretaking from my dad’s perspective. Getting inside the minds of our family members can feel like the hardest thing to do, and a story like this helps make that connection easier.