Excerpt from 'Erased'
By JIM KRUSOE
Tin House BooksCopyright © 2009 Jim Krusoe
All right reserved.
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 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 some time late at night to a place where it's really dark, and you watch. You'll see. Don't argue."
"But, Mother," I said, "I'm not arguing. I'm agreeing. I can go outside right now and check if you want me to." My mother wasn't the sort of person you argued with.
But that time she gave me a break: "Don't be silly, Theodore," she said. "It's the concept I'm discussing here. And besides, I need you to listen to me for a while. Don't ask why, OK?"
My mother was transcriber; that's what she did for a living, week in and week out. This was her routine: Once or twice a week she would take the bus downtown to the transcription service and put the tapes she was finished with, together with the computer disks on which she'd transcribed them, into a medium-sized cardboard box marked "Incoming" that the transcription service kept by the front door. "No Internet for them," she used to tell me with satisfaction in her voice, though no doubt that will change soon if it hasn't already.
Next, she would pour herself a cup of coffee from the pot in the corner of the office, put her purse down on the table, flop into chair, and hang around for a few minutes to talk with Angela. Angela basically ran the place. 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." At least that's what my mother said. Then my mother would pick up new tapes from the box marked "Outgoing," also by the door, get back on the bus, and bring them home to her apartment. "It's 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 wan tot get on her bad side, either.
On the phone that night, my mother told me that earlier in the day she'd brought some new tapes home, and as usual inserted the first untranscribed one into 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 first transcription, she checked it on the screen for spelling and copied it to a disk. She said she'd done two more right afterward, 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, rest his soul," 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 conversation as I might have.
The tapes were of lectures or interviews, usually from 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 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 containing great historical interviews with world leaders, et cetera, the tapes my mother copied were mostly filled with the voices of so-called experts droning on, sometimes with a semifamous personality thrown in. The names of these latter she would repeat to me with a note of pride in her voice, but usually she limited her conversation about the tapes' contents to the odd fact she found interesting.
That night, for example, my mother told me she'd just finished transcribing an interview with a 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 I was tired. Then there was a catch, or something, in her voice and she added, "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. I imagined her lying in her bed 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 because the neighborhood she lived in wasn't the best. It consisted of 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. It was her idea. After all, until recently she'd spent my whole life not caring anything about where her only son lived or what was happening to him. So why, I wondered, should I feel the least bit guilt? I did, though.
Through the phone I could hear a car door slam every couple of minutes. 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. "Theodore, if you're interested, I'll tell you. Actually a really odd thing did happen today," she said. "Though it's probably nothing."
I sat up in my 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. 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 her hands-one of the few places where I could measure her vanity. They were strong, practical hands, not showy, but well-shaped and smooth. She took good care of them. The rest of her was sturdy and no nonsense-"tough" I suppose some people might call her.
But she didn't sound tough then. Instead, my mother spoke softly, as if at that very moment she herself was transcribing what had happened earlier that day, or maybe was 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 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. 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 still light out, 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 passes as 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 and, really, that indoor stuff was never really my style."
I made a mental 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 find again, but couldn't say what it was. It wasn't the first time I'd felt like this, and I 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, as I was saying-all those lovers hurrying to bed, those clerks hurrying home to their families, and those businessmen going who-knows-where, the funny secret look that people get when counting their money still plastered to their faces. 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."
Skateboards were a sore point with my mother. I was born too long ago ever to have grown up with one, but didn't much care one way or another. Since when-I asked her in my mind-were you so interested in children?
I flipped the channel to a pantomime wrestling match between two guys in sequins. My mother grew silent. When she spoke again her voice was even more different, and heavier. "So I was just looking out the window," she said, "and 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 tools or maybe machine parts, and he didn't look like a businessman. And this man, Theodore, walked right up under my window, but instead of checking out the window of the Treasure Chest, as most 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 was a stalker? I 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. After a bit she continued in that same weird voice, almost as if she'd been hypnotized, something I found hard to believe anyone could do to my mother. "Relax, Theodore. Your mom can take care of herself. But if you're asking what he looked like I only wish I could say. 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 go on. This was a new voice. I had never heard her apologize for anything. Ever.
"And then," my mother said, "this man just stood there, and our eyes locked for at least a minute, maybe longer. `You, Helen Bellefontaine,' he told me, `are you listening to 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, the man must have been someone she knew, someone she had talked to and then forgotten about, who was playing a bad joke. Except for Angela, though, and Ramon, who worked downstairs at the Treasure Chest, she never spoke of knowing anyone.
I was just 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 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, 'think about it: Are you able to tell me right now what actual difference there would 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 bull's-eye in the center of the target of human existence.'"
"He really said that? `Wisdom culled from years'?"
"Can you imagine?" my mother said. `At first I thought he was an actor, but of course he said it. Do you think that being a transcriber I would have forgotten a speech like that? I even wrote it down afterward because it was creepy. Also, I have to say he was starting to piss me off."
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 you say to someone who talks to you that wad? I didn't say a word."
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 later, she told me, when she was still at the open window, looking out over where he'd been, that she realized it wasn't the kind of weather at all for such a heavy overcoat-it was much too warm-and whatever was in his bag couldn't have been tools because after he 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 my mother had gotten up and was now sitting on the edge of her bed-or maybe she'd moved to a chair-holding her neat transcriber's hands out in front of her to make sure they were real. "But that's crazy," I told her.
My mother took a breath. "Tell me about it, Theodore, but 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 I could hear her thinking the process through. "So, suppose that tomorrow morning I did just that. Suppose I got on the phone and made an appointment, and then in a 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."
So much for falling asleep, I thought. "Excuse me for asking, but are you taking any new medication or anything like that?"
"Hope," 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 lightening its way 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 about him-about the fact he knew exactly where I lived and my name, too-that rattled me. 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 fish-finder that a person keeps under the seat of his boat even though he has a new one that's much better in every way just in case he's out on the middle of the lake one day and the new one breaks, or he needs an extra part that he can take from the old one?"
Excerpted from ERASED by JIM KRUSOE Copyright © 2009 by Jim Krusoe. Excerpted by permission.
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