The last time I spoke with my mother she was worried.
It was late at night and she said she couldn't get to sleep. This was unusual because I had never heard my mother say that she had trouble sleeping. Once she even told me she slept like a tree. "You know, Theodore, some people say that trees don't sleep, but they do. You go out yourself some time late at night to a place where it's really dark, and you watch them. You'll see. Don't argue."
"But Mother," I said, "I'm not arguing. I'm agreeing. I can go out right now and check it you want me to." "Don't be silly, Theodore," she said. "It's the concept I'm discussing here. And besides, if just by any chance something happened to you while you were out there I'd feel responsible. Sometimes I think I never should have left you."
My mother was a transcriber; that's what she did for a living, week in and week out. This was all a part of her routine: Once or twice a week she would take the bus downtown to the transcription office and put the tapes she was finished with, together with the computer disks she'd transcribed them on, into a medium-sized cardboard box marked "Incoming" which the transcription service kept by one side of the front door. "No Internet for them," she said with satisfaction, though no doubt that's changed by now.
Next, she said, she poured herself a cup of coffee as usual from the pot in the corner of the transcription office, put her purse down on the table, flopped into a chair, and hung around for a few minutes to talk with Angela. Angela basically ran the place, and sometimes, if Angela was too busy to talk she would point to the phone she had pressed against her ear with her shoulder, wave good-bye and mouth the words "next time." She did that once when I was there. Then my mother would pick up a new package of tapes from the box marked "Outgoing" from the opposite side of the door, get back on the bus and bring them home to her apartment. "It's a real grab bag," she used say. "Sometimes you get great ones that are easy to understand and fast to finish; at others you get some real stinkers." Angela was fair, of course, but a person didn't want to get on her bad side, either.
The same day my mother had called me she said she'd brought the new tapes home, and as usual inserted the first untranscribed tape in her foot-pedal-activated, variable-speed tape player, and put on her headphones. Then she'd listened, typing what was said and who said it into her computer. After she finished the tape, she checked it on the screen for spelling and copied it to a disk. She said she'd done a couple that day, and I knew that eventually, when the whole batch was completed, in about a week, she'd get back on the bus, drop the tapes, each in a separate envelope together with its disk into the "Incoming" box, and hear another installment in the story of Angela's tragic life. Angela had a boyfriend who was a real horse's ass, my mother said, but Angela couldn't seem to shake him. "I told her he reminds me of your father," my mother said, "but that didn't seem to help."
You can see why I may not have been paying as much attention to the whole conversation as I should have been.
The tapes themselves were of lectures or interviews, usually radio shows, and needed to be transcribed not so much because they were especially interesting or because they were going to be printed anytime soon in a book or magazine, but the transcripts had to be made for legal reasons in case, as sometimes happened, the originals got lost or needed to be examined quickly. "In other words," my mother used to say, "we're not talking high drama here, Theodore, only small claims court." So instead of great historical interviews, the tapes my mother copied were mostly the voices of supposed experts droning on, with sometimes a semi-famous personality thrown in. These latter she would name with a note of pride in her voice, but mostly she limited her communication about content to the odd fact she found interesting.
That night, for example, my mother told me she'd just finished transcribing an interview with a well-known scientist who claimed that mankind was destroying about eighty species of animals and plants and insects every single day—or maybe that was only the number for animals—I was just half-listening because I was in bed by then, and as I said, was tired. There was a catch, or something, in her voice and then she said, "Erased, just like that. As if they'd never been alive at all."
"Are you all right?" I asked, because I thought I heard a different tone than I was used to.
She told me she was fine, though yes, she was feeling distressed at that moment, and I imagined her sitting in the apartment where she said she preferred to live instead of moving in with me (thank goodness). "Is everything OK with your apartment and your neighbors?" I asked.
I should add here that a part of me felt guilty in a way because the neighborhood she lived in wasn't the best. It consisted of a few light industrial types of shops, places that bent metal or fabricated plastic, and was home to a few marginal businesses, like the Treasure Chest, the store she lived above. But on the other hand my mother was tough, and I hadn't asked her to pack up her belongings and come out to St. Nils to be with me. After all until recently, she'd spent her whole life not caring anything about where her only son lived or what was happening to him. So why, I wondered, should I feel so guilty? I did, though.
That night on her end of the phone every couple of minutes I could hear a car door slam. It was the sound—I knew from having watched—of some guy pulling up to the Treasure Chest, and running inside. Then after a short while, the car door would slam again and the invisible door-slammer would drive off, carrying some box, some bag, some apparatus or another. I say "guy" because about ninety-nine out of a hundred customers of the Treasure Chest were men.
Then my mother's voice was back with a kind of strange quiver to it. "But Theodore, if you're interested, I'll tell you. A really odd thing did happen today," she said. "Though it's probably nothing."
For the first time I sat up a little in bed. "Go ahead. I'm listening."
I pictured her at that hour. She would be lying in her own bed, holding the phone with her left hand, and talking. Her window would be open because she liked to sleep that way, and she was probably dressed in one of the white cotton nightgowns she favored; maybe she was even still in her bathrobe. As my mother talked, she would be looking at her right hand with its transcriber's fingers and short nails that she liked to cover with clear polish. It was a small thing, but I knew that she really enjoyed admiring them. Her hands and nails were one of the few places where I could measure her vanity. They were practical hands, not showy, but well shaped and smooth. She took good care of them. The rest of her, as I said, was sturdy and no nonsense.
My mother continued softly, as if at that very moment she herself was transcribing what had just happened earlier that day, or maybe speaking it into an invisible microphone for another, imaginary transcriber to take down. "I had just gotten up from my desk—my ‘work station' you know I like to call it—and walked over to the window to look down at the street below." Again, for a second I thought I could hear something entirely different in her voice. Was it fear? I pushed the thought away. But honestly, a part of me just wanted to stop talking and to sleep.
"Remember this was only five or six hours ago," she told me. "It was evening and was still light, though naturally it was growing darker every minute, and while some people were coming home from work, others were heading out for what I suppose they call pleasure these days: maybe dinner and a movie and a little dancing—who knows, Theodore—it's been a long time since I've done that myself."
I made a note that I should probably take her out to dinner one of these days. Then out of nowhere, I started to feel really sad, as if I'd lost something I'd never see again, but couldn't say what it was. It wasn't the first time I'd felt like this, and knew if I waited it would go away. I turned the TV on, with a picture but no sound, because that usually seemed to help. It showed a hockey game, men darting like angry wasps.
My mother continued, "So there they were that evening—all those lovers hurrying to bed, those clerks hurrying home to their families, and those businessmen going who-knows-where, with that funny look people get when counting their money still plastered to their faces. I don't know the exact time, but it was still early enough for a few kids to be out on those horrible skateboards. I don't know why more of them aren't killed on them."
Skateboards were a sore point with my mother, and I, of course, was born too long ago ever to have grown up with one. Since when—I asked her in my mind—were you so interested in children?
I flipped the channel to a pantomime wrestling match with two guys in sequins and my mother grew silent. When she spoke again her voice was more different still, and heavier. "So I was just looking out the window," she said, "but then out in the street a man stopped and looked at me. He was wearing a heavy, brown overcoat and carrying a dark leather bag. It wasn't exactly a briefcase," she added, "because it was lumpier and looked as if it had been designed to hold groceries, and he didn't look like a businessman. Then this man, Theodore, walked right up under my window, but instead of checking out what's in the window of the Treasure Chest, as most of people do, or avoiding it, this man stopped dead in his tracks. Then he raised his head, and stared right at me, as if he knew me from somewhere."
"Maybe he did," I said. "Did he threaten you or harass you in any way? Do you think he could have been a stalker? I just hope you got a good description of him and wrote it down, just in case. Maybe it's time for you to think about moving to a better neighborhood." I wished I hadn't said that part but it was too late to take it back.
There was a silence as if she were thinking. Then she went on again, in that same weird voice, almost as if she'd been hypnotized, something I found it hard to believe anyone could do to my mother. "Are you asking what he looked like, Theodore? I only wish I could say. But the fact is that right now, when I try to picture him, I can only remember that brown overcoat. And the bag. I'm sorry."
I waited for her to continue. This was a new voice. I had never heard her apologize for anything.
"And then," my mother said, "this man just stood there, and our eyes locked for at least a minute, maybe longer. ‘You, Helen Belefontaine,' he told me, ‘are you hearing me?'
"I must have nodded or something," she told me, "because his voice became quieter, but at the same time—and I don't know how this is possible, Theodore—I could hear it even better. Then he said, ‘You, Helen, who are looking down on me and all of us at this moment, thinking your thoughts, copying the words of others, has it ever occurred to you that you might not even be alive?'"
"What?" I said. "How would he know that you're a transcriber if he hadn't met you before?"
My mother said nothing. Surely, I thought, it must have been someone she knew, had talked to and then forgotten about, who was playing a bad joke. Except for Angela, though, and Ramon, who worked downstairs in the Treasure Chest, she never spoke of knowing anyone.
And I was about to mention this when she resumed. "Then the stranger's voice got even quieter. He said, ‘Yes, Helen, I mean you. And despite your having a steady occupation as a transcriber, and having a strong pulse and steady heartbeat, has it ever occurred to you for even one single moment, that you might be dead, because not only for the living but also for the dead anything is possible? And if that sounds strange,' he said, ‘why don't you think about it: Are you able to tell me right now what actual difference would there be between you being here and alive this very second, and if you weren't, but only thought you were? Answer that if you can with all the so-called wisdom you have culled from years of transcribing interviews, Helen Bellefontaine, and you truly will have hit the jackpot.'"
"He really said that? ‘Wisdom culled from years.'"
"Can you imagine?" my mother said. "Of course he did. Do you think that being a transcriber I would have forgotten a speech that? I even wrote it down afterwards because it was creepy."
It sounded like she was moving back to her old self then, so I felt a little better. "What did you answer?" I asked.
"I said nothing, of course. What can anyone say to something like that? I was afraid to say anything."
Then, my mother said, the stranger—whose hair she suddenly remembered might have been a medium brown—simply turned, walked around the corner, and disappeared. And it was only afterwards, she told me, when she was still at the open window, looking out over where he'd been, that it wasn't the kind of weather at all for such a heavy overcoat; it was much too warm, and whatever might have been in his bag couldn't have been groceries because after he had left she noticed there was a dark, moist spot on the pavement right where he'd been standing.
"Maybe," my mother said to me in an uncharacteristically tentative voice, "he was carrying a block of ice to a party."
I turned off the television and looked at the phone, which seemed to have grown heavy and impossibly cold in my hand. I imagined her sitting there on the edge of her bed—or maybe she'd gotten up and moved to a chair—and now was holding her neat transcriber's hands out in front of her to make sure they were real. "But that's crazy," I repeated.
I could hear my mother take a breath. "That's what I just said, Theodore, and you have to realize I was in shock. Honestly, it felt as though the man had struck me. I was sure I was alive, of course, but I started thinking: how exactly could such a thing be proven? I know, I could go to a doctor, of course," she said, "and the stranger even mentioned my seeing one. So, I suppose that tomorrow morning I did just that. I got on the phone and made an appointment, and then in month or two, when I finally get to see one" (my mother had no health insurance plan, and something as simple as seeing a doctor was not so easy) "the doctor will tell me nothing's wrong and that I should take a vacation." She gave a laugh. "As if I can afford a vacation. And anyway I can't stop remembering how the stranger hinted that there was something about the dead, or at least about some of them, that had the ability to fool doctors."
So much for falling asleep, I thought. "Excuse me for asking, but are you taking any new medication or anything like that?"
"No," my mother said, "but you tell me this please, and I'm not kidding: You know how in the past sometimes people used to be buried alive, and how it still happens now once in a while, though mostly in poorer countries. Then why can't the reverse also be true? Why can't someone who is actually dead be walking around right now? And if that person happens to be me, and a doctor really was able to confirm this, to sit me down and say, ‘Yes Helen, as a matter of fact you are dead. That stranger who spoke to you in front of your apartment a month or so ago was absolutely correct,' would I really want to know?
"Would you?" she asked.
I told her that was a good question.
"So, here's the thing, Ted," she continued, her voice continuing back to its old self. " I know I'm still the same person I was before the man called out to me. I know I'm fine—you don't have to worry—but there was something him and about the fact he knew exactly where I lived and what I did and my name too. I guess that's why I called you."
Then my mother made one of those laughs people use to show that everything's OK. "So what do you think, Theodore? Am I alive, or am I like some device, say, an old fishfinder that a person keeps under the seat of his boat even though they have a new one that's much better in every way just in case they may be out on the middle of the lake one day and the new one breaks down, or they need an extra part that they can borrow from the old one?"
"A fishfinder?" I said.
"You know," my mother answered. "Like radar, for finding fish."
But even as I thought about what, if anything, I should do, my mother's voice changed again, this time into a one-of-the-guys tone she seemed to be able to produce at will. "Hang on for a minute, Theodore," she said. "Your mom is going get up and pour herself a nice stiff glass of beer."
The phone clunked as she set it on the table by her bed. It was true—my mother liked her beer. I pictured her getting up, wearing her red slippers, picking up the portable phone again and taking a few strong strides into the kitchen toward her refrigerator. Essentially, my mother's apartment consisted of three rooms: a living room, where she slept, a white-tiled bathroom, and toward the back, the kitchen with its small light blue table that caught the morning sun. The kitchen was where she usually ate her meals, and I knew at that very moment that kitchen table would be changing from blue to purple beneath the flashing neon sign of the Treasure Chest, which liked to advertise itself, in smaller red letters crammed beneath the large ones, as "Your Family Center for Adult Entertainment." The Treasure Chest wasn't as large as a person would think a center for anything would be. But it was safe, because as my mother said, "The real sickos don't spent good money on this stuff, don't you worry."
Then she was back on the line again. "There," she said. "I can feel my pulse. Pulses don't lie, do they?"
I told her I didn't think they did, and there was more silence as she took another gulp (my mother wasn't someone who sipped her beer).
I didn't know what else to say or do. I thought maybe if we stayed on the phone like that—her drinking beer, me listening—quiet long enough, everything would rewind to where it had been before the stranger had called out. The recent past would be removed, and my mother would go back to being the exact same person she'd been earlier, back to when she was transcribing—indisputably alive, not special, not a saint, that was for sure, but back to being my mother, whoever that was—and I could get to bed and go on with my life, as I had all those years without her. "Do you want me to come over for a while and stay with you?" I asked.
I got out of my own bed and walked to my own window. There was another long silence on the phone. The road outside my apartment was dark, and there weren't any cars going by. The streetlamps across from me had burned out weeks ago and the city still hadn't gotten around to fixing them.
My mother spoke. "Well, I think that beer has made me feel a lot better. You can always count on a beer. I'm fine now, Theodore. I know you have a successful business to run and all that. I'm going to try to get some sleep and you should, too. So good night," she said. "I'll see you around. Thanks for listening to the worries of an old woman, even if she is your mother."
Do the dead sleep? Who can say? I imagined my mother lying there. Against her cheek would be her usual pink sheets, probably scratchy because wasn't one for doing laundry, and no doubt she would be feeling the weight of her green wool blanket, as heavy as the dirt that covered a grave. She would watch the Treasure Chest's red strobe as it announced its location like a lighthouse in a choppy sea for anyone who needed the comfort of adult entertainment, or maybe, come to think of it, to warn lost sailors of rocks and danger. And then, thanks to the beer, she would begin to doze off, and at last she would be gone.
But I believe that was the first time I ever heard my mother call herself old.