by Henry Woodbury
Mother has been in Buffalo since she got out of the
asylum, and now Alfie and his wife, Julianne, are
bringing her home. Catherine and I talk about this
on the way to the Greyhound station. I say, “Alfie
says we can trust Mother.”
Catherine says, “Maybe he can, but what about you?”
I touch my cheek with two fingers. I have a trail of scar tissue
beneath my eye that marks a huge difference between Alfie and me.
This scar shows where Mother fired a bullet across my face .
‘Tm kind of scared,” I say.
‘ ‘Has she changed?’ ‘
“I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what she’ll think
of you, either.”
When Mother was first released I almost went to see my
father-in-law to borrow his killer guard dog, a big black ugly
bitch named Hocus. I wanted that dog to rip Mother apart if she
showed up without warning. I called him up, but he’d had the dog
put to sleep.
Catherine drives very calm! y. She’s wearing jeans and a
white sweater with Scandinavian reindeer trotting across her
Mother and Alfie and Julianne are waiting for us in front of the
bus station. Mother wears a leather flight jacket and cowboy boots.
If she had a horse she could still go galloping off, no problem.
She has short crow-black hair, cut practically punk, and narrow
black eyes. She stands very stiff here beside her suitcase; if you
pushed her, she’d fall over.
I say, “Mother, this is my wife, Catherine.”
Catherine drives the truck home, with Mother and Julianne in
the cab with her. Alfie and I sit in the bed with Mother’s suitcase
and some broken bushel baskets.
Alfie wraps his parka around him and hunches down against
the cab, his arms folded . I lean over the cab, facing into the wind,
like I’m on a sailing ship. My whole face is freezing . Snow flurries
fly through the air.
I turn back to Alfie . I say , “Do you think she’ll shoot me?”
He shouts out, “What?”
“Does Mother have a gun?”
I point my finger at him, cock the thumb. “Bang!” I shout.
He shakes his head.
Our house is set far back from the road, with my apple orchard
running along the driveway . The twisted trees are bare of leaves and
apples, but they look good to me . Above us, the clouds crash
through the sky like waves from the ocean.
As soon as we get home, Mother goes up to her old room and
falls asleep. Alfie watches the news on TV and dozes.
Julianne and Catherine and I are in the kitchen . As I cook
dinner, Julianne talks to me . Catherine is reading, but I know she’s
Julianne says, “Your mother doesn’t look very healthy, poor
woman . I wonder if she has much longer to live. ”
I say, “I wonder about her sanity.”
Julianne takes five plates out of the cupboard and begins to
set the table. “I don’t think the asylum really helped her. It was
more like a prison than a hospital.”
Catherine looks up. She and I are very quiet.
Julianne sighs. “I don ‘t think it was good for her at all.” She
sets each plate down with a thump.
Catherine says, “Don’t you think she might still be planning
to shoot someone?” Meaning me, of course .
Julianne puts her hand to her mouth. She turns to look at me;
she looks at the trail of shiny scar tissue beneath my eye . “Well,”
she says, “well, well. That happened before I knew her.” She says
to me, “Oh I know it must have been horrible . I’m so sorry.” She
reaches out like she wants to comfort me . She has these watery eyes
and soft pale lips.
She says, “But really, that was a long time ago.”
I say, “We will keep her away from knives and firearms, I
hope.” I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back.
When I go to wake Mother up for supper I find her lying awake
on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
Mother says, “Your wife is a pretty girl.”
I say, “I think so.” I help her to a sitting position. She’s stiff
I smile at her. “I hope you don’t plan to kill me, Mother.”
She looks straight into my eyes, unsmiling. “If I had the
strength I would strangle you right here .” She has her arm around
me as I help her to her feet .
I follow her slowly to the stairs. I could imagine her pushing
me if I went first .
She says, ‘Tm pleased you haven’t destroyed this place yet.”
At dinner, Alfie sits limply at his place, greasy and disheveled
from sleep. Next to him, Julianne overwhelms Mother with support.
” Do you want some ham, Mrs. Melville?” and places a slice on her
plate . “Do you want some applesauce, Mrs. Melville?”
Mother doesn’t like this help, I can tell. She glares at Julianne,
but Julianne never really looks at her.
Julianne says, “I hope you don’t mind me helping you,
Mrs. Melville . I’m just trying to make things a little easier.”
Mother says, “Please don’t.”
Alfie says, “Don’t fuss.Julianne .” He rests his chin in his hands
with his elbows on the table .
Julianne eats and eats. I couldn’t say that she’s fat; she holds
herself well for a large person . She drinks a glass of cider and burps.
Mocher leans slightly away from her, her neck quite stiff, her mouth
turned down deeply at the corners. I almost laugh . I think Mother
must despise Julianne .
Alfie stares at his plate and picks at his food. I worry about
Alfie’s silence. He has something on his mind .
Almost immediately after dinner, Mother pushes Julianne out
of an upstairs window. I’m reading the evening paper when Mother
calls. Just a little husky cry, but it sends chills into my feet.
I hurry to the hallway and look up . At the top of the stairs
Mother is leaning against the wall like something carved there .
She says, “Julianne fell out of the window.”
I tun into the yard and around the house and find Julianne
sprawled at the edge of the lawn, feeling her bones. I’m amazed.
She isn’t injured. The ground is frozen solid and the sweat freezes on my face and the snow is really coming down-great soft flakes-
but Julianne isn’t even touched . The wind gives her hair and clothes a good shake and the lady stands up and walks.
The next day Catherine and I drive down to see my father-in-
law, Ed Jersey . We bring Mother along. I will leave her there, on Ed’s farm in Schoharie.
Alfie is eating breakfast as we leave . “Wilson,” he says, “I
want to talk to you.”
“Sure Alfie, when we get back.”
The drive to Schoharie leads us through splendid hills and past
small farms. I figure Ed’s safer than any of us, at least until Mother
finds a reason to hate him, too. When I tell her where we are
going, she says, “Is there any reason why you think this Ed Jersey
is safe from me?’ ‘
I say, “He’s not family, is he?” This makes sense to her.
Her hatred grows slowly. She started hating Julianne back
when she was in the asylum and Julianne and Alfie visited
Mother says to me, “She used to bring me books and tell me
to eat well and keep warm . She is a stupid woman.”
I say, “Yeah, sort of.”
She says, “At least she visited.”
I admit, I never did.
We bounce up Ed’s driveway, scattering gravel with a loud
clatter. There is a hill behind Ed’s house, not exactly suitable for
farming, but just a few years ago, before Ed retired, the hillside
would be speckled with cows. I can still smell them. Mother smells
them, too, and I think maybe she smiles.
Ed Jersey is a medium man with big boots and gray hair
brushed under a little baseball cap. I fell in love with this man long
before I fell in love with his daughter.
He says, “Wilson, Wilson . Great to see you!” He hugs
Catherine and kisses her on the forehead . “Hi, little girl.” He
pumps my hand up and down . “How’re things up in Saratoga?
You getting by?”
“That’s great. I bet you had a good crop of apples. I’ve heard
this has been a good year.”
I say, “I think that’s what I’ve been telling you.”
He laughs. He says, “Oh excuse me , this must be your
mother.’ ‘ He has passed between Catherine and me and found
Mother. She shrinks away from him in her tough leather jacket.
I say , “Yes, this is my mother. ”
Ed holds out his hand, saying, “Mrs. Melville, I certainly am
pleased with your son . I think quite highly of him.”
Mother says, “Why?”
Ed says, “What? ”
Mother says, ” You know why Wilson is forcing me upon you?”
Ed nods. “Wilson has helped me out before; I can do a favor
for him and for his mother. ‘ ‘
Ed knows the whole story . I trust him not to anger a little old
lady, and not to be done in by her if he does.
We stay for lunch. Maybe it’s because Ed is so lonely that I
trust him with my mother.
Before we leave, standing at the truck, with Mother sitting at
the kitchen window, I say to Ed, ”I’ll figure something out soon.
I really appreciate this.”
He says, “Wilson, no problem. I’ll bet she ‘s an old farm
woman herself, right? We ‘ 11 get along fine.”
” All things considered, don’t turn your back to her.”
Catherine smiles. ” Don ‘t worry about Dad , Wilson. ” She
knows her father.
Ed shakes my hand and hugs Catherine. She says, “Love you,
Dad, ” and he beams.
We get back home just before evening when the trees in the
orchard reach their richest shade of gray in the hazy light.
Alfie is waiting for us in the kitchen. He says, ” Where’s
I say , “Where ‘s your wife?”
“Watching television. You’ve been gone all day.”
” Sorry, Alfie . I left Mother at EdJersey’s house . I don’t want
her around here for a while .”
Alfie scowls at me . “You mean because of what happened to
Julianne last night, right? Don’t you think you might have talked
to me about it before you took Mother away?”
I say, “Think about Julianne . She’s the one that got pushed
out the window.”
Alfie says, “It makes no sense . Maybe she ‘d do that to your
wife , not to mine. ‘ ‘
I brush past him and go check on Julianne .
Julianne is stretched out on the couch beneath a checkered
quilt. An electric cord snakes under the blanket, going to a hotpad
on her bruises.
I say , “Julianne, you’ re safe. Mother is in Schoharie .”
Julianne looks up with a thin smile.
“She’s going to stay there until I can figure out what to do
with her. ”
Julianne has a plate of cookies on her lap. Her hand crawls out
from under the quilt and she puts a cookie in her mouth. “You
were gone all day, Wilson . I can’t stand these boring Sunday
afternoons.” She licks crumbs off her lips.
“Yeah, ” I say. “Sorry .”
“I started to worry.” She yawns and pats her mouth .
I smile. “Sorry,” I say, and retreat.
Alfie and Catherine argue in the kitchen about Mother. Cather-
ine says, ” Don’t kid yourself, Alfie . She ‘s a dangerous woman .”
Alfie says, “Wilson is the only one who has the right to
“How about Julianne? She could have been seriously injured.”
“That’s different . That wouldn ‘t happen again . It must have
been an accident. Hell , I don’t know.”
Alfie turns to me . He says, “Why did you take Mother away? ”
Catherine rolls her eyes and folds her arms. I’m sure Alfie has already
asked her the same question .
I open the fridge . I say , “How about an apple , Alfie . Let’s go
for a walk.” I need to look at my orchard before we eat supper.
I say , “Would you make supper, Catherine ? Get Julianne to
help, if you can.”
Alfie says, “So you really think Mother is that dangerous.”
Catherine says, “Yes, Alfie, of course. ”
Alfie puffs his cheeks out and exhales loudly . He pulls on his
parka and ties a scarf around his neck .
Alfie and I walk briskly in the orchard through stiff brown grass
blown in swirls. Alfie shivers and hunches over with his big parka
wrapped around him. He’s wearing cheap canvas sneakers.
I say, “You really don’t see Mother the way she is.”
“Is that so?” He sounds unhappy and cross.
“I don’t think she likes your wife.”
“That’s not your problem. ”
“Right.” We’re walking along a ditch that has a thin layer of
ice at the bottom. I look at my house and see the lights shining.
Alfie sits down on a bank of grass, hunched down tightly . He
stares at the apple trees.
I say, “We can’t have Mother here; she’s far too dangerous.”
”She’s got a right to live here . You keep thinking you can push
her around. That’s what started the wbole problem.”
” She tried to kill me . That’s what started the whole problem.”
Alfie looks at the house across the orchard . He says, ‘ ‘You can’t
run her life . It’s her house.”
I say, ”I’m the one paying the mortgage.”
”Well, you can’t just leave her at Ed Jersey’s.”
“What the hell should I do?” I glare at him.
Alfie covers his eyes with his fingers and rubs. “She should stay
here,” he says.
He stands up and faces the other way, looking across the ditch
toward someone else’s field. The wind catches his hair and blows
it up from his forehead. Alfie looks an awful lot like me: we have
the same stiff hair and long noses. Our profiles are truly aero-
dynamic, like sailboats. The scar beneath my eye is the difference
Alfie says, ‘ ‘When Mother first went into the asylum, she was
really crazy. She wanted me to kill you for her.” He pauses. We’ re
still not looking at each other. ” She told me she would give me
the house and orchard if I did.’ ‘
Again he pauses, his eyes concentrated on the trees off in the
distance. “I told her I didn’t know how to run an orchard.”
I say, “Thanks.”
“That was a long time ago . That’s not the way she is now.”
I say, “I wish I believed that.”
Still, Alfie insists on seeing her, so he and I drive down to
Schoharie the next day. I’ve been thinking, but I have no answers.
I can’t leave her with Ed forever.
Alfie tells me we can’t put her in a rest home.
I say, “Do rest homes take ex-mental patients?”
We find Ed and Mother out on the hill . He’s showing her his
old property, most of it sold now. He points at landmarks.
I call out. ”Hello , Ed .”
He grins down at us. ”Hi Wilson. Hi Alfie. Fine day , isn’t it.”
I scramble over an old rock wall to shake his hand . Alfie
lags behind .
Ed says, ‘Tm showing Mrs. Melville all the old land . I thought
this was a good day for a walk. ”
Alfie says, “Hi, Mother.”
She says, “Hello, Alfie.”
Several crows fly overhead, toward the bushes and the bramble
at the top of the hill.
Ed is standing on a big rock. I say, “Is she behaving herself?
He smiles. “No problems. She doesn ‘t say much, but that
doesn’t bother me.”
I say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do . Just let me know
if anything worries you.”
“Okay. I’m not worried.”
Ed and I walk down the hill ahead of Alfie and Mother. We
talk about apples and cows until Alfie taps me on the shoulder.
“Wilson,” he says, “are we going to take Mother home? We
Mother says, “There’s only so much I can put up with ,
” I know,” I say. “That’s why you’re staying with Ed .”
Alfie says, “Wait a minute. You can’t push her around
like this. ‘ ‘
“Hell, Alfie, think about Julianne for a minute .”
Mother says, “Julianne fell out of the window.”
I say, ” You pushed her!”
Mother says, “She is a stupid and clumsy woman. ”
I say to Alfie, ”I’m sorry, I’m not going to have her in the
same house as my wife . I don’t care about yours. ”
He says, ” We’ve got to take care of her, Wilson. ”
I think my brother is being intentionally simpleminded. At this
point, I’d rather knock him down than argue .
Ed says, “She’s really welcome to stay with me. I don ‘t mind
a bit. ”
Mother glares at him. ” Did I ask to stay with you?”
I say, “Mother, don’t blame Ed.”
We walk to the house where a short flight of wooden steps goes
up to the back door.
Alfie says, “Mother, go get in the car. You’re going home with
us. I’ 11 get your suitcase .”
I sit down on the steps. I say, ”If Mother tries to go with us,
I’m not going anywhere .”
Alfie says, “You can’t do this, Wilson.” He goes into
the house .
I look at Mother, then at Ed. I say, “Ed, do you think you
could put up with Alfie tonight?”
Ed ‘s eyes open wide. He brushes the baseball cap back on his
head. “Hell, Wilson, are you trying to dump all your relatives on
me?” He smiles.
“If Alfie comes out here with that suitcase, I don’t know how
I’m going to get out of taking Mother home. ”
Mother says, “This is just like you, Wilson .”
”I’ll be back tomorrow morning, Ed. I’ll figure something out
He laughs. He says, “Well, I didn’t expect this, but sure,
okay.” He scratches his head . His smile looks kind of thin.
“Thanks, Ed.” I almost expect Mother to grab me as I hurry
to the truck , but she is far too dignified for that. She glares at me
as I rev the truck and back out of the driveway . I wave at Alfie as
he comes running out of the house .
I ask Catherine that night if we could move in with her father.
She’s lying in bed beside me , thinking this over.
She says, “That makes my drive to school a pretty long one,
and you wouldn’ t have any way to get up to the orchard.”
“There’s not much work in the winter, and Alfie would help .”
“He’s never been any help at all. ”
I say, ” I know it’s a lot of trouble; I just wonder how your
father would feel.”
“Oh,” she says, “he would love it. I’m not sure about how
I’d like it.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
She says, “You aren’t his child.”
In the middle of my conversation with Catherine, Julianne
comes and knocks on the door. She has been upset with me all
evening for leaving Alfie in Schoharie.
She says, “Can I come in?”
Catherine and I look at each other. Alfie and Julianne’s
bedroom is at the opposite end of the house on the second floor.
Julianne keeps that end of the house clean, and Catherine and I
don’t go back there. Our bedroom is behind the kitchen and toasty
warm. Alfie and Julianne leave us alone after dark.
“Sure,” I say .
Julianne eases in the door and sits at the edge of the bed. She
looks at us over a rounded shoulder. Catherine and I slide her way
so she doesn’t crimp her neck.
She says, “I was getting kind of lonely upstairs, with Alfie
I wonder if she’s trying to make me feel guilty. I say, “I’ 11 get
him tomorrow.” I wonder if Alfie has ever been gone for the night
before. When he went overnight to see Mother in the asylum,
Julianne went with him.
Julianne says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Mother died?”
I say, “Yes, but I don’t expect it to happen soon.”
She sighs. “If she just died, everything would be fine.”
Catherine props her head up with her hand. I kiss the back
of her neck. Her hair brushes across my cheeks and nose .
Julianne says, “Is she going to come back here?”
I say, “What do you think?”
She says, “Where else would she go?”
I say, “If she comes back here, which one of us do you think
she’d get first?”
Julianne says, “Alfie said she’s not dangerous.”
Catherine says, “Would you want Mother in the bedroom next
Julianne flops backwards on the bed and rests her head on our
legs. “Maybe we could lock her in her bedroom, except for
I say, “Alfie wouldn’t stand for it.”
Catherine says, “Neither would I.”
Julianne says, “No, that really wouldn’t be right.” She rolls
over on her stomach.
I say, “Are you always this restless at night, Julianne?”
She lies like an otter on the bank of a river. She says, “Yeah.
Poor Alfie, why do you think he’s so tired all the time?”
I say, “I never thought of that. ”
Julianne rolls over and falls off the end of the bed with a sound
like something being clubbed. “Ouch,” she says, “my poor bruised
backside.” Her head pops up and she sets her chin on her hands
on the edge of the bed . She says, “I used to fall out of bed
when I was a kid, so I just go limp.” She closes her eyes. I’m afraid
she’s going to sleep right here . Catherine turns off her bedside light
and rolls over.
“Whoa, ” says the woman at the end of the bed, “Let me out
before you go to sleep.”
The next morning I drive down to Schoharie again.
Looking out the window at the gray landscape, I spot the moon
still visible in the morning light, a silver crescent in the powder blue
sky. The sun tips into my side window and warms the side of
my face .
I drive with one hand on the steering wheel. I lean into the
turns. I move in slow motion, intending to cake Mother home if
I have to .
I’m almost to Ed’s farm when I suddenly see Mocher standing
in the brush by the side of the road, a small upright figure
watching me drive by. She’s wearing red gloves. I skid to a halt and
jump out of the truck almost before it stops moving. Mother,
standing about fifty yards away, carries a small gun, an air rifle or
a .22, a child’s weapon.
The sun pushes a pale light through the trees and everything
is clean and clear. As soon as I gee past the end of the truck ,
Mother lifts the gun to her shoulder and pops away .
I stand there a second, breathing in the cold air, then I
scramble back to the truck and gee in . I drive to Ed ‘s farm, a couple
of miles down the road.
Alfie sits at the kitchen cable, shivering.
I say, “Alfie, what are you doing here? Mocher is down the
road with a rifle .”
Alfie jumps up . “You’ve seen her?”
I say, “I figured I’d better get you to rescue her.”
He says, “I’ve been looking all over for her. We woke up this
morning and she was gone . I went up that stupid hill looking for
her.” Alfie hasn’t shaved this morning; he looks awful.
We drive back up the road and see her sitting by somebody’s
mailbox. In the time I went to get Alfie, she has only crossed
Alfie says, “There she is.”
I say, “I know.” I pull over and stop. “You go get her.”
Alfie gets out and walks slowly toward Mother. He shivers from
the cold. I watch him closing in on Mother. She leans against the
mailbox, the rifle twitching on her knee.
Alfie takes the rifle from her and brings it back, Mother walk-
ing behind him. I get out, take the rifle, and throw it in the bed
of the truck. Mother and Alfie get in on the passenger side , and
I get in behind the wheel and slam the door.
Mother says, “If you leave me here, Ed’s a dead man.”
I say, “So where will you go, Mother?”
“Home. Take me home.”
Alfie nods, but says nothing.
I say, “Are you going to kill me or Julianne first? Or maybe
lose your temper at Alfie some day? Or maybe you’ II come to hate
Catherine?” I glance over at her. “If it’s fifty-fifty between me and
Julianne, I could take that chance.”
Alfie says, “Hell, Wilson, how could she kill anyone?”
I say, “Damn it, Alfie, I don’t know.”