When I was fifteen years old, my English teacher sent a piece of my writing to the Times and it was published, giving me the same sort of short-lived but ravenous fame that responds to all things grotesque. My mother had already read that piece and several others by the time, in college, I handed over what I called my first novel. It was about a family from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the widower father, a generally beloved former governor, the mother out of the picture from shortly after the birth of the youngest (as my own mother would eventually point out, my stories rarely featured mothers, my character sets serving as a sort of social experiment in the stunted psyches of motherless children), the children – both daughters, one grown and the younger somewhat grown also, depending on who you asked—she was a freshman at an in-town college, studying alongside her hapless, effeminate but straight boyfriend to one day be doctors.
Her life changed, as the lives of young, educated, reasonably wealthy white people will tend to, on a trip to Africa. With orthodox ignorance, my mind imposed a unifying blot over Africa—at first. Finding this unacceptable for anyone but especially for me, I spent the next several months writing nothing but coaxing along my embryonic appreciation for, specifically, Ethiopia, taking notes on the popularity of its open-air markets, the blue-and-white mini-bus taxis of Addis Ababa, the soft lilting sound of the Amharic spoken there.
I was loaned expensive full-color culture and language books from a returned-missionary couple I had the good fortune to meet while working at a sunglasses store in the mall, a job my mother had strongly encouraged I take after I’d explained I was taking several months to adequately steep myself in Ethiopian culture. I will always remember that after I’d pored over these beautiful, and pristinely kept, books and filled major chunks of no fewer than three notebooks with trivia from a guidebook compiler’s perspective, I returned the books to their owners, gushing over the chance to achieve a more nuanced view of how poverty and poor health snaked into this region, as opposed to assuming some blanket destitution. The husband of the couple nodded as though he were with me word for word, leaned in as though to share an important secret, and said, “You know what it comes from, don’t you?” I did not. So he spelled it out for me: “S-I-N.”
I remember going home and sharing the encounter with my mother, and asking her just whose sensitive ears she thought he was accounting for in spelling out a three-letter word.
“His inner child’s,” she said. Then she asked if I’d accumulated enough data that I could barrel forward with the writing itself. I told her, honestly, that I did not know. There was something that felt classically witless about osmosing data intended for tourists, even a great mound of it, and then considering myself equipped to recreate that world; there was virtually no chance that someone from the region would do a double-take between my book and the vivid Ethiopian landscape outside their front doors—that minty smell from eucalyptus trees wafting in—in an effort to figure out which was real.
Probably understanding that I was on the brink of suggesting I needed to go to Addis Ababa, spend as many months—at least—inheriting its three-d visuals and rhythms as I had spent reading about it, my mother said, “Russo, I applaud your efforts to learn about a place before you go acting the expert on it, but maybe I’m missing something. You told me your story’s set in Harrisburg.”
“It is,” I told her. I told her the majority of the action stretched from Harrisburg to Lancaster—Amish country—but that this adventure taken by the youngest daughter—I had named her Clarissa, the elder sister Janie—sparked a desperate need to establish her own life somewhere far, far away, a motive that would drive a course of action that could easily seem haphazard, insane even, if I could not show readers what those qualities were that compelled her to leave.
My mother answered me, “To go, you mean.”
I agreed; we were saying the same thing, I thought.
“Because people tend to be excited to go somewhere, but you’re saying desperate. If she’s desperate, then she’s desperate to leave, right? To leave Harrisburg?”
I would not agree to this because I hadn’t accounted for it in my story; in my story, Clarissa’s life wavered between fine and magnificent. She was not unhappy to begin with so hers could be a purely positive motivation, something I had rarely seen represented in book form and wanted to accomplish in mine. It would be a feat of art, a fitting follow-up for the boy whose story had been published in the Times at fifteen, which by this point was several years ago.
If I remember correctly—my memory synthesized of a high, caustic smell and the image of abused cotton balls littering the dining room tabletop—my mother was doing something it was not unheard of for her to do: removing nail polish she had just put on because she’d grown irritable waiting for it to dry. My mother was a naturally beautiful woman, and not without her customizing touches, not insistent upon leaving alone the looks god gave her, but she wouldn’t abide rituals that handicapped her for any length of time. With her chemical scent wafting across, she frowned and asked me to tell her what my story was about.
“Life,” I told her.
“Any one part?”
I told her it would be too difficult to summarize but have realized in the time since it would not have been; it was simply that I knew my mother herself had a natural-born sense of story and could have instantly felt out the holes in mine. I also wanted to postpone her knowing the story until she read it, hoping that my style could sell its tattered heart in a way that I couldn’t by pitching it to her over cotton balls that appeared, from her red polish, to be unevenly marinated in blood.
The night I had come home after my fight—this is what I called it: a fight—she had stopped midway through applying a different shade of red. One that didn’t look as nice on her, which isn’t to say it looked bad. It’s only that my mother’s skin was naturally a warm cinnamon (she’d flipped the conventional New England tableau in adopting a poor white baby) under which murmured a subtle tangerine shade, particularly near the end of the schoolyear when the sun could be counted on for more than light, and it meant that an orangish red didn’t complement the tone of her hands quite the way other shades of red did.
Not that she had any particular sun-glow that year; the sun hadn’t been making special efforts. In fact, as I recall, a late winter storm had cold-salted the air in a way that sent us indoors for most of what we otherwise would have handled outdoors. For instance, when it came time for my partnered book report with Tristam Jessic, we at first talked about meeting up on the courtyard at school to get down some initial notes but then it had snowed and snowed, and he had said: I have a treehouse. And for somebody like me: enough said. Handsome football player with a treehouse, where he stored books for school along with weird rare books in what I took to be home-hewn crates? For a while I was glad it had snowed.
And even though I liked blue-red shades better than orange-reds on my mother, in the trashcan, the cotton balls she’d used to rake off her polish looked delightfully innocent. Next to the hemic washcloths I discarded there they were like mums strangely vased.
I did eventually leave my book for her to read, once she had convinced me that my months of research were sufficient for the grand three sequenced scenes that occurred outside Pennsylvania. I left it on her bed accompanied by a long disclaimer note, trying to at once explain the story before she read it (having reversed my policy on this completely and without cause) and acknowledge and thereby distance myself from any flaw I could imagine her finding in it. When I returned home later that evening it was with a sense of dread. An unfounded sense.
I knew my mother to be steady, reasonable, and constructive in her criticism; I knew it was how she was with her students. More than once on visiting her classroom I’d witnessed students older than me humming around her desk, waiting respectfully for Ms. Reasinger to take a break in making dinner plans with her son so they could say, in breathless sprints, things like Miss-Reasinger-did-you-have-a-chance-to-read-my-short-story and Miss-Reasinger-I’ve-realized-my-theme-isn’t-clear-until-halfway-through, and they would always smile nervous smiles and apologize to her—for having burdened her with their stories, for their callow and butterfingered approach to writing—but, strangely enough, their self-deprecation seemed to come from a place of absolute security. They could let loose a bluster of self-mockery and insecurities not because she would coddle them, assuring them nothing they’d ever feared regarding the limits of their talent could possibly be true, but because in her was a sort of gentle sieve. There was no advantage to her in tearing anyone down—widely published herself, she was jealous of no nubile up-and-comer. She was ever accurate. Solidly fair. Regularly pointing out what was executed well in books she didn’t like and highlighting passages that could have been improved by x, y, z in books she adored.
Beyond my mother’s essential justness and intelligence, there was the fact that she loved me—more than I think I knew how process, to a degree that I knew nothing about at that age. It would be some time yet—I would be a parent myself, in fact—before I would understand her love for me encompassed both a gentle corrective nourishment in the direction of success and a violence.
It may be only excuse-making now, but I’d like to believe if I had fully understood what I was to her, I may have been less concerned, or more, about her reading the manuscript I’d left on her bed. The story’s title was Lilac, after the nickname given to the younger sister, Clarissa, by the elder, Janie, who in the absence of a mother had become a surrogate second parent to the girl. In the story, after Clarissa takes a trip to Africa with her boyfriend, who serves a sort of remedial social function for her and does little else, she applies for and is, almost instantly, accepted to a program that would involve a two-year course of studying in the heart of Ethiopia and volunteering along its extremities. The window of time for not only her response but her departure is as short as such windows tend to be in fiction. Here is her problem: she needs her sister to say it’s okay. Her sister’s approbation is her own private law; to shuttle off to Africa for two years without it unthinkable. And actually, her true problem is this: Janie is not home.
Janie—a cop, an undercover cop in what I somehow imagined to be Pennsylvania’s robust organized crime unit—is on assignment rooming in the mansion of an evil man who’s set up a sort of assassin brothel in the fringe of Amish Land, and she could easily be there for months.
Calling on her wiles—charming but decisively unsexual—as the lanky, golden-hearted, video-game-playing, doe-eyed youngest of a glad-hander, Clarissa wheedles someone in Janie’s department into letting on where Janie is and then she goes to her. To her credit, she does not go planless: she knows well the perils of those soporific Lancaster highways, especially in the rain, and she has lucked upon a rainy day for driving. She crashes her car into the gate of this crime lord’s home, knowing exactly how innocent she looks and also, for the record, not fully understanding what it is he does; taking him for a glorified drug dealer, which is natural enough in light of her belief that her sister is a vice cop. Communication, you will see, is not this family’s strong suit.
Figuring she will charm her way in—hers the type of relaxed, slightly arrogant magnetism still more associated with boys—she also figures she will bump into her sister at some point, let it be known that she has to go to Ethiopia to fulfill her purpose/dream so that her sister will not come home to find her gone and, in a heartbroken panic, fly across the Atlantic looking for her. Then she will be on her way. Her innocence could tame an ogre.
I am able to admit that what happens next, while horrible, is not especially inventive: not trained in harboring her true identity, as her sister is, Clarissa can’t distinguish between the man’s seemingly harmless and truly harmless questions and does not detect the danger to herself when he has her car whisked away for repair, invites her to dinner while she waits. While clever enough to have retrieved her car registration from the glove box, she has not taken into account how easy it would be for a man of technological means to have her identity traced backward from other features.
When they return to his minimalist chateau, he guides her down a long hall, doorless except for the shut entrance to a room at the very end, and along their walk makes it obvious to her that he knows. But from there, what can she do? She has no training, no potent muscle tucked into her slender frame. He is older, broader, male; he tutors and employs those who murder as a way of life. In the room he calls an oubliette though it is indoors and level with the rest of the home, the asymmetry of their fight becomes plainer still.
I will spare you, as I did not spare my mother, the details of how he tries to persuade her to tell him why she is there, and who else may be there. It’s only important to know that her sister became aware of Clarissa’s presence in the house only after she was imprisoned and the crime lord had invited his many boarders to view her; she had a decision then to make: speak out right away, blowing her cover and very likely having her sister, her partner, and herself slain in a heartbeat, or stay quiet as she works diligently behind the scenes to get word out of the now-locked-down estate to end the sting, surround the place, bury him.
In this, I would later explain to my mother, I was shooting for a parable of moral conundrums not unlike those of The Crucible: one path feels right, down the other lies the only realistic possibility of survival. It was to be philosophically awake but gray, with a vaguely Dante-like structure and a full digest of flower symbolism—the crime lord’s house girdled by Mister Lincoln roses (hence the only name he is known by in the story: Lincoln), from which, at one point, he fashions for his prisoner a Christian crown. At another point he walks her through his garden, whispering her name in a premeditated if not wholly faked display of affection, erasing both Harrisburg and Ethiopia in the heat of his breath.
Harrisburg and Lancaster had been easy to research by comparison to Ethiopia, as one would imagine. One Saturday when it was neither warm nor cold enough to go the ski lodge, I mentioned that I wanted to see that cut of Pennsylvania up close, and my mother—her fingernails painted completely this time, in a shade close to frost—shut whatever she’d been reading and said, “Then let’s go.” So we went. We drove straight from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we navigated the tight city streets with some difficulty but eventually found parking. As we walked around the town—down the sunlit corridors of its famous Strawberry Square complex, down its halfway artistic streets booming with eateries and drinkeries—my mother pointed to the capitol building, directly across from where we were standing at the moment, and observed, “Everything is wedged together in this city.” She didn’t add I don’t like it, but I understood that she didn’t.
We stayed the night in a hotel because we understood there to be some possibility of touring the Governor’s Residence the following morning; that night in our room, my mother asked if I’d gotten what I needed. I looked out over the tidy city streets and shrugged. While she asked me something—I would have to catch up with the question after my daze had run its course—I had an unprecedented thought which, between the height of our balcony and a day spent almost fasting out of an indecisiveness over which café looked most representative of the Harrisburg Experience, struck me with a sickening gravity: she should be writing this; it would be a better story if she were. She would be able to hover her hand in a mutant gesture over the city, and whatever it was trying to say would rise like heat, gather like magnetic splinters, press itself firmly into her palm. And while it did none of this for me, the city did mutter, letting me know at least that I was correct. It had something to say.
When I zoned back in, I gathered she had been asking me this: What part did the retired-governor father play in the story? Any? Did the father at least have an impact if the mother had to be dead?
“He delivers this big, important speech to Janie,” I told her, “at the hospital, before Clarissa comes homes.”
She said, “Good lord, Russo. You’re putting the girl in the hospital?” She knew only the outline of the story at this point; that was as much as I knew also though. It was with on-the-spot rashness that a critical piece of the story’s infrastructure, and its resounding moral question, occurred to me. I talked aloud from the excitement of having at least half of an idea that—and I suddenly knew this—fit the story’s needs.
Before, I’d known only that the sisters represented moieties of some inchoate whole, and that the younger got hurt—badly enough that her father had to come to the hospital, where he was prompted to give an Important Speech. The other piece cascaded down, and I shared it with my mother: her sister would be in a position to stop her from being hurt, but it would be unwise for her to do so. Her sister would have to choose between ending her pain in a heartbeat and letting it go on as she acquired resources to truly free them both; in this possibility, I saw morality, philosophy, art, roots of a literary structure beginning to push through the earth.
My mother saw something else. “How would she be able to think straight,” she asked me, “knowing that every minute she is not rescuing them, her sister is being hurt worse?”
I said, “Well, that’s just it. That has to be her motive. She has to take this horrible reality and make it her reason to think clearly.”
My mother’s mouth hunched to the side as she considered this. It was thrilling to me that already, through the gauze of something I was about the business of creating, she saw people—two sisters with the holy power to make and break one another. She then told me that something else occurred to her: if Clarissa was hurt, not by accident or genetics but in a violent way, the image of her sister watching it happen without intervening would logically stain her mind long, long after they were free.
We left Harrisburg early the next morning; I decided I didn’t need to see the Governor’s Residence. I was excited to write. And though my mother was clearly pleased to see a step in this direction, she also said, “I will remind you of this moment if you ever talk about going to Ethiopia again.” But Ethiopia didn’t matter to me now, not in the way it had. Neither did the continent of Africa on whole. Nor the sisters even, when you got down to it. The story thrummed in this one question: if it had once appeared to you, vividly, that someone you loved stood aside and stared while you were in drastic, increasing pain, could you trust again—or was the ending sewn into the experience?
When I worked up the nerve to enter the house, I found that my mother had read my book, and that our house otherwise looked exactly as it had when I’d left that morning. I believe she had made herself a slice of sourdough toast with avocado spread—a favorite reading snack of hers, and one that left a distinct watermark on our white plates—and at least one cup of coffee. No lights had been turned on that I had not turned on that morning, so half the house was a web of crepuscular hallways that would make even skeptics suddenly fear the presence of ghosts.
Instead of turning on every light in the house, as I wanted to, I sat down across from her at the table. Between the fixture lit up directly overhead and the light that strayed in from our automatically timed exteriors, this one spot resembled a bulb of sorts, casting a muted glow into the kitchen, the den, the few steps leading up to the first landing. Her expression when she looked up at me from the paper sheaf, across which her wrist stiffly lay, was sedate and meditative—and, I thought, tired. I could not and would not face the nightmarish possibility that she had been crying.
Her first question was surprisingly safe: “I may be glossing over a detail,” she apologized, “but why is she ‘Lilac’?”
“I may not have made it clear enough,” I allowed. “It’s symbolic. Well, in the governor’s family, there’s the flower garden and that’s always been her plant. But lilacs can easily get ‘lilac blight,’ where one minute they look fine, the next they look like someone’s taken a blow torch to them. It happens especially if there’s a long rainy, mildewy time, or if there’s been a late winter frost.” The latter point dovetailed with my story only insomuch as there was rain; the factor of rapid disease was what mattered.
She nodded. “So, the symbolism’s even,” she said, “it makes sense. It works.” She wasn’t one for rewording an already-clear point unless she needed to stall. “Some of the visuals you used were very compelling.” Her hand absently shuffled the loose edge of the manuscript, but she did not glance down at it. “Like the gazebo out in his rose garden.” I noticed she was searching for more positive things to say and my heart dropped; however, she found one: “I noticed the Dante structure.” I had known she would. It was only because of her that I knew of the existence of such a thing. All the same, you don’t grow up observing your mother make praise-criticism-praise sandwiches when communicating with other adults, her managerial style a research-based one, without knowing what to expect when she wraps up her first suite of flattering words.
It should be noted I had prepared to defend this novel as PhD candidates will defend a dissertation; I was not ready to learn from what she had to say. Having her in my head might, I thought, have automatically prevented me from leaving in any bloopers. If I wasn’t thinking of her voice itself when I wrote, and I certainly was not with this horror/romance/coming-of-age tale, I was thinking of what errors she might find and either expunging them from my writing or preparing to explain why they were okay as-is this time.
It was frequently her voice I heard as I critiqued others’ books, in the form of the book reviews I occasionally wrote to establish that my “writing career” had not shot to the heavens but there exploded at age fifteen, and as I once had in book reports. For instance, I could almost hear her walking me through my talking points the day Tristam Jessic and I took notes for our shared book project in his treehouse. I remember that I was taking him through these thoughts that may have been mine but were etched in her tone, her mannerisms of speech, when he acknowledged the validity of everything I was saying with a statement that arrested any further words at the bottom of my throat: “See, I knew it was a good idea to request you.”
It was news to me that I’d been requested. Our English teacher, Ms. Ransom, had linked us apparently out of her own wisdom—just think of what fragile literary wunderkind Russo and big silent footballing Tristam could bring out in each other—or, with a mind toward this exact same misalignment of qualities, her bored sense of humor. Now I thought of him loitering after class, his face bakery-warm from a chronic shyness that differentiated Tristam from other members of the clannish Jessic family, and saying more to the floor near Ms. Ransom’s feet than to Ms. Ransom herself, “Could I be paired with Russo?”
I had forced him to confess to it again. “You requested me?”
But before we could unfurl whatever logical endpoint was bound up in his having requested me and having then invited me to literally his private room in the trees, his brother had come home. His brother, Drake Jessic, I would soon realize was the treehouse’s original proprietor; it had become Tristam’s only in a process of default when Drake had enrolled in college, the first but not the last Jessic to go on a football scholarship.
In critiquing my book, I thought my mother might point out that one has to be careful with the portrayal of violence in literature, not only because with it being a nonvisual medium, readers can more or less refuse to look at what you’re asking them to if they’re squeamish, but also because of the Compassion Cliff, as I thought of it—the cliff off which, if a character falls, the reader will back away from, figuring It’s too bad, but she’s gone now. There’s nothing I can do to help; all I can do is save myself.
I was prepared for that argument as well as for, I thought, the one she actually presented me with. Or started to. “Russo, honey, it’s not realis—” I heard her stomach growl; not even avocado can make a hearty meal of toast. Her fingernails were a blanched magnolia-pink as they played at her mouth.
“It’s a bizarre scenario, I know,” I said. “But aren’t you always saying certain things have to be exaggerated in fiction so they’ll have the same emotional impact that something subtler would have in real life?”
If I’m honest, I believe the one or two times I’d heard her make mention of this phenomenon (certainly, then, not “always saying” it), she had been talking about movies—how dramatic lighting and soundtracks could be warranted by a moment of tenuous emotion—but she did not bother correcting me.
She said, “Oh sure. Some things call for exaggeration.” A critique hewn down to stating general facts. I could not describe the way in which she was talking to me except to say I was being handled, and it sent scorpions through my veins. It was hard to accept that, about her own son’s novel, my mother had no more to say on the topic of exaggeration. As we’d been driving back from Harrisburg toward Portsmouth, I’d just begun describing, in the broadest strokes, some of the hyperbolic horrors that would befall my main character in order to ask this question—this central question of trust—when my mother wanly smiled and asked, “Russo, do you know how hunters gets so close to deer?”
I did—or I knew what she attributed it to—because I’d overheard this piece from her lecture series before. Portsmouth may have been a decimal of sophisticated commerce but the area at large was not without its more rustic pursuits; my mother knew how to reach her audience so she sometimes spoke about literary style in terms of hunting. Hunters got close to deer through subtlety. Layer by layer subduing themselves until their once-assertive humanness was thoroughly muffled—until they looked, smelled, and sounded like the woods.
I had heard her make this point often enough, and from an early enough age, that I ought to have caught it much sooner. In being inherited by Tristam Jessic, it may have become a treehouse; under Drake Jessic’s stewardship, the structure had been something different.
And even though the realization made me feel instantly sick—the sort where you have to cover your mouth to pin back your stomach—in terms of the fit between setting and dialogue, this was a majestic one. In a treehouse, many of the words that had been said once Drake found us—faggot . . . teach you to leave my brother the fuck alone . . . cry for that nigger mama of yours—had seemed excessively rough, almost gory. In a former hunting blind, they were, at least, not as violently unsuitable.
She had followed me into the bathroom with her handful of orange-mum cotton balls, which hit the trashcan before I’d even retrieved a washcloth. She said nothing as its terrycloth ridges in immaculate cream touched up the scourge of fresh bruises all across my face. Then she said, “What—”
And I told her, “Just a fight. Somebody said something.”
She said my name, quietly. She reached without connecting to my arm. She almost cried but, perhaps understanding that this is not something I was equipped to deal with—not then, not ever—didn’t. In the mirror she caught my eye.
She’s the reason I started writing—of course. When I was younger, she read to me not just impulsively but obstinately; she dared the world to interrupt this time of ours. She read until our cheeks were rosy with characterization, epic journeys. She was a believer that reading, with its focus on the interior life, could foil the world’s roiling focus on the exterior, and when she told me this, that there was a cure and we held it at our fingertips, I understand that if she didn’t exactly believe it was true, she did believe in her own magnanimous will and its power to speed along the process of whatever she hoped, one day, would be true.