Writer's Note: For several reasons I'm posting this essay which originally appeared in turnrow. Classes are beginning which makes me weirdly feel like a student as much as a teacher. The events in this essay occurred during my years in grad school. It reminds me to have empathy for my students as much as possible; when you're juggling a whole bunch of things, your integrity can get lost. Or at least that's my justification for what I did. Plus what I was going to post today turned out to be stupid, based on a misreading of a poem. I do have more than one friend who would attest to the truth of this essay, including my partner of 11 years. And the ultimate truth is that I promise myself I'd write 3 posts a week, and with preparation for classes, I need something to fulfill my promise to myself.
Here's the essay named "Bringing Back the Dead":
Bringing Back the Dead
I decided to steal the woman’s money. That was the plan. It was a smart plan. The woman Jane Simmons started a travel fellowship in her son’s name after he killed himself. He liked to travel, and this was the best way she knew to honor him. I would create a phony proposal that I knew would appeal to her, and take the money and run.
My parents were poor, and I never traveled. I didn’t like flying or being trapped in a car for an extended period time. But I did want the money, and to apply for the travel fellowship, all you needed was a smart proposal and two letters of recommendation. No one would ever find out if you didn’t go on the trip. Or so I thought.
Not only did it seem to be a smart plan, but it was an easy one.
The travel fellowship was worth $5,000. I felt no guilt about taking the money. She was begging someone to take it. Gratitude was all the rich woman wanted, and I could give her some of that. Maybe I’d even shed a few tears for her dead son. For a price.
If you won the money, you had to leave the country for six weeks and spend the $5,000 on travel expenses. Everyone in the university thought Jane was eccentric. She loved the oddest proposals, had no tolerance for stiff academics.
My proposal was to go to England for archival research. I wanted to write about Joice Heth, who was P.T. Barnum’s first act. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington. Heth and Barnum toured England together. I pretended to want to visit museums that housed documents about her acts.
Flamboyant and fun, I never risked coming off as an uptight scholar. The one role I could play in life was myself, and I had it down cold.
Especially since there was $5,000 and a simple target, a vulnerable woman involved.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t become weak and feel pity for her. Everyone suffers tragedies. At least she had money to help her get through it.
Two weeks before I turned in my proposal, my mother disappeared, stopped returning my phone calls. She was always losing jobs. I hoped that she didn’t need money. I had bailed her out before. But I was feeling selfish. I wanted the $5,000. It was the least I deserved for concocting such a brilliant scam.
I promised myself that I would give my mother about half of the fellowship. That was how confident I’d be able to take advantage of this vulnerable woman. I hadn’t even won the fellowship yet, and I was already spending the money.
As the deadline for the fellowship neared, my resentment grew toward my mother. I was no Robin Hood. I didn’t want to steal from the rich to give the poor. I wanted to steal from the rich and give to myself.
The day before Thanksgiving, I filed a missing person’s report for my mother. Although my mother and I didn’t talk much, it was unusual not to be able to get ahold of her when I did phone. For several weeks, my calls went straight to her voice mail, and then suddenly, there was a message that said that the line had been disconnected, and there was no forwarding information.
Where could my mother have gone?
It wasn’t like she had any money to go anywhere. She had been unemployed for at least three years. My mother never left the trailer. Growing up poor, we never traveled, never invited people over. Arguing was our hobby; it was cheap and kept us busy.
My brother didn’t like to argue, so he never called me after I moved out of the state. Out of courtesy and foolishness, I left him alone, contacting the police before I phoned him. But my fears got the best of me, and I needed an answer, and, unlike me, he lived in the same state as my mother.
I couldn’t believe he picked up the phone when I called.
“Where’s Mom?” I said. I thought I was being polite by skipping the salutations; I knew he’d want to get off the phone as quick as he could.
“Gone,” he said.
“Where to?” I said.
“The bank foreclosed on the trailer. She had to leave.”
“I didn’t know this. Did you?”
“I don’t want to argue,” he said.
“Our mother is gone. I filed a missing person’s report,” I said, “I want to know the details.”
“There are no details,” he said, “The bank foreclosed on the trailer. She had to leave.”
Two weeks later my mother called me and told me she was safe, living in my brother’s spare bedroom. She didn’t sound sad, never once made a self-pitying comment. I almost wanted her to sound angry, bemoan the fact that so many job employers were discriminating against her because of her age.
I wanted her to come to life through anger, or at the very least, misdirect her anger towards me. But she didn’t. She asked how my financial situation was, if I was staying afloat.
I told her I was in the midst of applying for fellowships.
“Good,” she said, “Take whatever you can get.”
“Don’t worry about me,” my mother said flatly, “I’ll be fine.”
I was determined to bring my mother some happiness, put some life back into her voice. Now I really wanted to give all the money to my mother. But not too much of it. I wasn’t a saint.
The money would vitalize my mother. I imagined that was why Jane Simmons began the fellowship in the first place.
I pictured her laying in bed, depressed over her son’s death, wondering how she could escape her grief. She imagined her son’s happiness as being when he had the opportunity to travel, so she began the fellowship in his name. It made her feel a little better, not much, but it was a step in the right direction. Was I doing anything wrong to use the money to help someone else out, especially if that someone was a lost family member?
When I told my advisor that I was going to apply for the fellowship proposal, I found out that she was friends with Jane Simmons. A few days later after I turned in my application to the department, my advisor put me in touch with her. Jane really liked the proposal as I knew she would.
When I called her home, she sounded so happy, like she had never gone through a tragedy, which made me feel good. I didn’t want to steal money from someone who was sad. I had some morals. “Your advisor told me all about you. Why don’t you come over?” she said.
“Sure,” I said, “When?”
“Now,” she said, “Right now.”
I was embarrassed to explain that I didn’t had a car.
“I don’t have a car,” I said.
“Take a cab,” she said, “I’ll pay for it.”
“I’ll take a cab,” I said, “And I’ll pay for it.”
The cab driver took an especially long route to get to her mansion. I figured that he was going to get as much money out of me as he could. He knew she was in the richest part of town, and never suspected that someone traveling to this affluent neighborhood might be poor, trying to support a mother who made less money all year long than a cab driver on a slow night.
Jane was waiting outside for me. When I got out of the car, she gave me a hug.
“You look familiar,” she said.
She looked familiar to me too. I didn’t know whether I should say anything. I was afraid that it would sound like a line, something someone would say to get $5,000. I knew I needed to sound like the money was the furthest thing from my mind. So I decided to say nothing.
Let her guide the conversation. Let her guide me to the $5,000.
“Do I look familiar?”
I didn’t know what to say. “No,” I lied, “Have we met?”
She looked hurt. “I loved your proposal,” she said, “It didn’t sound stiff and academic. Barnum is a fascinating guy.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“My son used to make up stories. Really weird stories. When he was a child, he would make up stories about places he wanted to visit. Or thought he wanted to visit. For the longest time, he talked about Africa as if everyone ate candy bars there and rode ostriches. Nebraska was another place he thought would be exciting. I have no idea why he was so focused on Nebraska. He was such a baby when he told these stories.”
“He must have been real creative,” I said.
“He was going to study biochemistry,” she said, “But he was. I think he could have been a writer.”
And then she started to cry.
She was sobbing uncontrollably.
Nothing would stop her.
I had to do something. I had to help. I wanted to say that I didn’t expect anything in return. This was an exchange that I wanted to make clear was free of charge.
I put my arms around her and held her as tight as I could. My arms touched her back, my hands suspended in the air, as if they belonged to a pickpocket who was just about to make a swipe.
I did win the fellowship. I had to be interviewed by Jane and a committee of scholars. Right before the meeting, Jane pulled me to the side and said that I had nothing to worry about.
“I can fake confidence,” I said.
“You don’t need to fake it,” she said, “I’m telling you it’s in the bag.”
Three weeks later, I got the check in the mail. Jane called me and told me I should invest it, not to take it out until I decided to do the actual traveling. That same day I decided to go visit my mother. I booked a flight and was so excited to write a check to my mother for $2,000. (Giving her $2,500 felt weird, an even sum seemed wiser. Also I needed some new clothes and felt that I deserved to indulge. When would I have another opportunity?)
I knew the $2,000 would make her happy. I knew she would be proud that she had a son who could help her out.
Before I got off the phone with Jane, she told me to be sure to keep that money separate from any other savings I had. Her money was special money, “magic” money, she said. It was money that made one’s dreams come true. She said it so convincingly that I almost regretted having already put the money in the bank. I wanted to examine the paper the check was printed on.
Maybe if I held it long enough, some magic would rub off on me. Maybe I would be transformed into something special, something unexpected, something good and genuine.
But all I could think of was buying a lot of extravagant purchases for myself. And, of course, writing my mother a check. I no longer needed Jane any more, and I found myself annoyed that she wanted to talk about my obligations to her money. What more did she want from me?
I held her.
I got her to stop crying.
I had done my duty.
My mother, my homeless mother, needed me, and I had no patience for the rest of the world’s needs. The world could heal itself.
I never carried cash with me. Even though I never had much money, I always lost whatever bills and coins I had. I put the $1,500 check in a box in my backpack. (She was living with my brother now, rent-free. Did she really need a whole $2,000? It felt a bit excessive.)
I was so excited that I could give my mother a substantial gift. On the way from the air port to my brother’s place, I stopped at a department store, got the box with her check gift-wrapped. It looked beautiful. It looked like something you’d want to open, because the person took so much care.
As I walked around the mall, I kept looking behind my back to make sure no one was going to mug me. I felt like I was carrying something everyone wanted.
Finally, I got to my brother’s place and knocked on the door. She was there. I was happy. The gift box was in my hands.
“Honey,” she said and hugged me. She almost knocked the box out of my hands which upset me. I had something she needed.
“What a surprise!” she exclaimed and her voice was so loud that I was afraid that the neighbors could hear. They would run outside to see what all the commotion was, and then the presentation of the gift would end up being delayed. “Come in,” she said.
She told me to sit down and she’d get me something to drink. I heard her rumbling around in the kitchen, flinging cabinet doors open, looking for something. Her seemingly reckless energy made me nervous.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I just can’t find anything,” she said, “This is not my home.”
She came out of the kitchen with a tray of milk and cookies. I handed her the gift box.
“For me?” she said.
“It’s a gift,” I said.
“For me?” she repeated.
It was weird. She looked embarrassed.
“Who else?” I said.
“I’m such a shitty mother,” she said, “I don’t deserve a gift. I haven’t been able to give you or your brother a gift for a long time.”
“Open it,” I said.
She opened the box and saw the money and then looked confused. I was bothered that she didn’t seem to appreciate the wrapping. I expected her to make a joke about it, like “Who the hell wrapped this? I know there’s no way you did.”
Instead when she saw the check, she said, “What’s going on here?”
“It’s a gift.”
“Did you rob a bank?” she said.
I rolled my eyes.
“You didn’t hurt anyone to get this?” she said.
It took me a full second before I said, “No. Of course not.”
“I’m scared,” she said. The money didn’t seem to make her any happier. I couldn’t believe it. I thought the money was going to bring her back to life. She still looked pinched, nervous.
“And you sure you didn’t hurt anybody?” she repeated.
“I’m sure,” I said, “I give you my word.”
I never asked my mother what she did with the money. She didn’t move out of my brother’s apartment. I knew that much for sure. My brother started to call me, asked me if our mother could stay with me for three weeks. I didn’t return his phone calls. My reason being I lived in a small studio apartment, barely large enough for me, let alone for two, especially when those two were my mother and me. But after half a dozen phone calls I decided to call him back.
At first I balked, but he promised it would be no more than two weeks, including the day of her arrival and departure, and he would pay for the tickets. He said he’d give me two months to prepare.
That same day Jane called me. She wanted me to come over for lunch. I agreed. I felt like it would be good practice: a mother who wanted more than I could give, was willing to give.
At lunch Jane asked me about the money. “You do have the money reserved for the trip?”
“When are you going?”
I could feel myself panicking. I told her two months. My mother didn’t like to leave the house. There would be no risk in getting caught.
I tried not to look her in the eyes as I was saying all this. I ended up spotting a picture of her son. I stood and walked over to it. It was a completely unconscious act.
I stared at the photo. Her son didn’t look like he came from money. His hair was tousled and he was wearing an unattractive navy sweater. It looked faded. There was a sadness in his eyes, almost as if he knew he was going to disappear one day and there was nothing he or anyone could do about it. I imagined Jane following him around the house, badgering him to cheer up, put a smile on his face.
I felt Jane’s hand on my shoulder.
“Does he look that unhappy?” she said.
“No,” I lied.
“You’re lying,” she said, “Don’t tell me what I want to hear.”
She waited a moment and said, “You look like him.”
I didn’t say anything. I decided not to tell her what she wanted to hear, not to mention we looked nothing alike. I would not tell her about my mother, her homelessness, the fact her husband, my father deserted us, lived in shelters himself for awhile. She had no right to know, no matter how much money she gave me. I owed her nothing.
She didn’t need my pain. That wasn’t part of the exchange.
I already gave her a hug.
That was more than enough.
I turned my attention back to the photo of her son. He had more rugged, classical features, a wan face. I still had baby fat, or what I tried to convince myself was such, so that I didn’t have to diet.
“Don’t you think you look like him?” I could feel our sadness in the room. She owned the most beautiful furniture, none of the cheap stuff that littered our trailer as I was growing up.
Everything was so beautiful and serene; I didn’t want to damage anything with serious conversation.
She came back out with an instant camera and took a picture before I figured out what she was doing. For the second picture, she told me to stand still, and smile, and then she asked me to back up. I did.
“Move that way,” she said.
I looked confused. Why couldn’t I just remain where I was standing? Posing for pictures was something I hated to do. “You’re cutting him out of the picture,” she said.
I didn’t know what she was talking about. There was no one else in the room.
“My son,” she said, “You’re blocking his picture.”
I took a step away from the photo. I was going to take another step, not because I need to, but I wanted to get away from him. He made me nervous.
She took another picture.
“Now,” she said, “Can you move a little closer to him? I want one of you together.”
I did what she said, and she took the picture.
The day before my mother came to visit me, I called Jane and told her that I meant to get ahold of her sooner, but time flew so quickly that I didn’t have a chance, and I was no leaving on the trip. For the rest of the day, I didn’t pick up the phone. She left 2 messages, expressing her concern that we hadn’t talked. She had travel advice for me.
That bugged me.
I wasn’t her son. I didn’t need her advice. I was a grown man. I knew what I was doing.
The day my mother arrived, I found myself restless, almost tempted to disconnect my phone service, because I didn’t want my mother to pick up the phone and have Jane on the other end.
But I didn’t. I should have, but I didn’t.
As soon as I picked my mother up from the airport, she claimed she was tired, and asked that we go home right away. She fell right asleep. I sat and watched her sleep.
For the first few days, my mother didn’t do much but sleep. I occasionally left the house to go get some groceries and videos. She never liked what I choose.
After a week, my mother said, “Why do you always get comedies? I hate comedies.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I ignored her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “Pay no attention to me. I feel like I’m walking through life in a haze. Like I’m a ghost. Like I passed away along time ago and no one has the nerve to tell me my life is over.”
I wanted to say, “But I gave you money. You have something. The money should make you feel like you have a life.”
But I didn’t. All I did was hug her and say, “There’s no need to apologize. You’ve been through a lot.”
Two weeks into my mother’s stay, Jane called. My mother was sleeping when Jane left the message. I played the message several times, surprised she called, wondering if she was testing me. Did she not believe me? Was she half-expecting me to pick up the phone absent-mindedly forgetting that I told her I left the country?
Two days later, I sent her email, claiming I was out of the country, and thanked her profusely for giving me the opportunity to travel.
At that point in my mother’s stay, we were really getting on each other’s nerves. Anytime she announced she was going to take a nap, I affirmed, a bit too excitedly, her decision. Once after I over-enthusiastically encouraged to rest, she seemed to resist her own fatigue and engaged me in her favorite conversation: how her husband, my father abandoned her.
On the second to last day of her stay, I told her we should go out to dinner as a celebration. We had rarely gone out. We ordered in a lot of the time.
She agreed to go to a nice Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. She even put on some makeup. At the restaurant, she seemed nervous.
“You don’t need to waste your money on me,” she said, “You’ve done enough.”
“You’re my mother,” I said.
“By the way,” I said, “How are you going to use the money I gave you?”
I couldn’t believe I asked that question. I was treating her as if she was my kid, making sure she didn’t blow the money on something stupid.
“Actually,” she said, “I already used it.”
“Really?” I said.
“I owed people money.”
“People?” I said, “You mean credit card companies?”
“I lost my credit card privileges years ago,” she said, “I mean people. I owed people money.”
The way she said people made me nervous. I pictured heavy-set Italian mafia people knocking on my mother’s front door.
“You didn’t get into any trouble, did you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I’m out of it now.”
We ate our meal in silence. As we got up to leave, I heard someone say my name. I told my mother to go to the car, that I’d be out in a second.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” she said.
“No,” I said, “Please go.”
But by then it was too late.
Jane was less than a foot away from us. “I’m Steve’s mother,” she said.
“I thought you went away,” Jane said, “Did you come back early?”
“He never went away. I was coming here,” my mother said.
“He told me he was traveling?”
“Traveling?” my mother said, “He hates flying. He hates cars. He would never travel.”
“Oh,” Jane said.
“Plus he’s doing good right here,” my mother said, “Working extra jobs, I assume. He bought a brand new VCR and TV.”
“Really?” Jane said.
“Yes,” my mother said.
“I’m real proud of him.”
“It’s not what you think,” I said.
“I’m sure it’s worse,” Jane said.
“What are you two talking about?” my mother said.
“Never mind,” Jane said, “Mothers suffer enough. They don’t need any more grief.”
And then Jane said to my mother, “When are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” my mother said.
“We’ll talk the day after tomorrow,” Jane said, “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
In between Jane meeting my mother and the day after my mother’s departure, Jane called my dissertation advisor, several deans, all who wanted an explanation. I talked to the people from school before I talked to Jane. I explained to them the situation about my mother, but no one understandably had any sympathy. Why did I buy a VCR and TV then?
They said they would the best they could on my behalf, but I had an obligation to call Jane myself, try to form some sort of agreement.
When I called her up, I started to cry as soon as I heard her voice. “What do you want me to do?” I said.
At first she didn’t say anything.
“I’ll do whatever you want,” I said, “I was completely wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“It’s not like I personally want the money back,” she said, “It’s that my son needs the money back. It’s his money. Not mine. I can’t do with it what I wish.”
“I just want you to know,” I said, “If I was going to steal your money, I would have bought something I needed. Like a car.”
“The fellowship keeps the memory of my son alive,” she said.
I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to tell her the truth. I wanted to say, “I wish that’s all you wanted from the money. But the truth is, you want the money to bring your son back from the dead. And no amount will ever be able to do that.”
But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. I imagined looking into her eyes and seeing my mother’s eyes, the eyes of a tired, exhausted woman, a woman so fatigued she could barely make sense of what was actually going on.
Not that I knew what was going on either.
“He needs the money back. He’ll take it in installments. And you need to be on time each month with your payment. He won’t be happy otherwise, and I know you want him to be happy. He shouldn’t have to worry about you.”
For an entire year and a half, I paid my installments on time. When Jane received the final payment, she called me up and said that she wanted me to come over. She needed something from me.
I asked her what that something was.
She said she could only make her request in person.
I took a cab to her place and she said that we needed to go for a drive. I got in her car. When we got to the cemetery, she got out, I stayed inside.
“Come with me,” she said.
We walked to her son’s gravesite. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his tombstone. “Look at his name,” she said.
She dug her hands deep in her pocket and then took out a check. “This is a check for $5,000,” she said.
And she tore it in half and then gave me half of it.
“Tear it up,” she said, “Tear it up in the smallest of pieces and then throw them on the grave.”
I must have looked confused.
I was scared.
I didn’t know what to do.
“Do what I say,” she said, “Please.”
I did what she said.
After I scattered the pieces on the grave, she followed suit. It was cold. It was cold and windy. It was blowing so hard that the grass on the grave shook, the tombstone looked like it might move. You might have thought that someone was alive underneath, restless, trying to make us aware of his presence, his gratuitous vitality.
New poem in The Cortland Review
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