labama stood in the doorway between her closet-sized bedroom and the living room. “Mom, are you okay?”
Diana forced herself to meet her gaze. Her daughter’s brow puckered as she looked from Diana to the pill bottle on the coffee table next to her and back again.
Alabama repeated her question, more loudly, over the music. Was she okay?
Diana nodded, even though she was disturbed by a weird delay between Alabama’s mouth moving and her own ears hearing sound. Oh boy. What more evidence did she need that the forces of the world were against her—words had to fight their way to her eardrums. David Bowie sounded normal, but now she wondered whether there might be a time delay there, as well. The record was spinning, but who knew how long it took his voice to make it through the speakers and then to her ears?
Ashes to ashes . . .
She reached for a cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply. Everything became sharper again. Thank God.
“ ’Cause I’ve got to get going soon,” Alabama said.
“I’m coming with you.”
Her daughter’s stance shifted. Tensed. “Are you sure? I can get there on my own.”
“You think I’d miss waving you off on your big adventure?”
Alabama mumbled something inaudible and then said, “I can’t find a red sock. I’m sure both my red socks were in the bag at the Laundromat.”
“Oh . . .” Diana twisted, looking for it.
Red sock. Alabama needs her red sock. I can do this for her, at least.
She tossed pillows and cushions off the couch, unearthing several old tissues, an overdue library book, an empty snack-sized Doritos bag, furry pennies. She pitched them all on the floor. Then she unfurled the crocheted afghan with a snap, unleashing a cloud of dust. But no sock.
“It doesn’t matter.” Alabama flapped her hands, eager now to drop the search. “I’ve got enough socks.”
Failure lumped in Diana’s throat. “I’ll find it. I’ll mail it to you at camp.”
“Camp’s only a week, Mom. I’ll probably wear sandals most of the time anyway.”
That was true. Just a week.
“But if you’re coming to the bus with me . . . ?” Alabama left the question dangling, with a hint of urgency.
Diana looked down at herself. She still wore the clothes she’d slept in, even though she’d been up since dawn trying to prepare herself to face this moment. She’d made pancakes and rousted Alabama out of bed at an hour when she was almost too tired to enjoy them. Diana couldn’t eat anything herself. She’d been so hopped up she’d had to take a Seconal to rein in her nerves.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll pull on a skirt and be ready to go. I laid out my clothes last night.”
This was one thing she was going to get right. Even if waving her daughter off felt like taking that first step up to the gallows, she was going to grit her teeth and do it.
Weeks ago she’d seen the flyer for the camp—Camp Quapaw—and felt bad that Alabama had never been to one before. Then and there, she’d decided to make it happen. She’d called her mother for the first time since Christmas and begged for money, and Gladys had coughed up the check without the usual accompanying lecture. Diana might have even been able to wheedle more out of her, but she’d felt too proud—too humiliated—to mention getting fired from the department store, or the fact that she didn’t know where June’s rent was coming from. Besides, this loan was for Alabama.
Because I love her more than life,
Then, she’d hatched her plan.
You could only kid yourself for so long, although she’d had a phenomenal run: She was the Babe Ruth of self-delusion. For thirty-five years she’d been someone different in her head than she was in real life, despite plenty of people telling her otherwise. She hadn’t studied, hadn’t applied herself to finding a good job back when she was starting out, hadn’t managed to keep even minimum-wage jobs, the ones she considered herself too exceptional for. Daughter in tow, she’d floated across the country looking for something better, something different, some place where she could escape the past, and failure. The men in her life had been disasters—except Tom Jackson, who was the last man in the universe she should have pursued. So that had ended in disaster, too.
No. It had ended in Alabama, who was the one good thing in her life. And now she was going to do this one good thing for her. The best thing.
When you loved someone more than life, you made sacrifices for them.
And yet, as they hurried to the bus stop later that morning, her courage faltered. Maybe there
something she could do. Another loan from her mother, another city, another job . . .
A quaking commenced inside her, deep inside, like a tuning fork that had been struck. By the time they reached the community center parking lot, her whole body hummed with doubts.
Kids were lined up to board the Camp Quapaw bus, and Alabama surged forward, her old blue Samsonite bumping against her calf. But halfway there, her feet dragged to a stop. She turned back. “I don’t have to go,” she said. “I never wanted to. This was your idea.”
Diana could have wept. It was so tempting to agree.
Yes! Don’t go. Stay with me.
But that wasn’t the plan.
“Your Gladdie wants you to go.” Alabama loved her grandmother and wouldn’t want to disappoint her.
“But what about you?” Alabama asked. “What are you going to do without me?”
Diana hooked her arm through her daughter’s and escorted her the rest of the way to the bus, praying Alabama couldn’t feel her quivering or see the tears building behind her eyes. “I’ll have a week to take a good look at myself.”
“Mom . . .”
Diana bent down and kissed her on her slightly sweaty temple, breathing in the sharp scent of Irish Spring soap. One last time. She remembered holding Alabama as a tiny baby, and glancing at the little vein in her translucent skin there and being terrified by the vulnerability of that little creature who’d been brought into the world so recklessly. The vein was still there, and Diana turned away from it, shuddering from the pressure building in her heart.
I love you so much.
She hoped the thought carried strongly enough that Alabama could hear it. She wouldn’t say the words, because she and Alabama rarely did say them. They just assumed. Knew. If she said them, Alabama might sense something was wrong and not want to go.
Even now, as the bus’s engine turned over, Alabama balked at the foot of the small stairwell, dancing from foot to foot, unsure.
Diana gave her a last quick hug and a nudge. “Bye-bye, sweetie.”
At last, Alabama rushed up the steps, and Diana stood waving as the old vehicle lumbered away in a plume of diesel exhaust. She was still waving after the bus turned the city block and disappeared from view, and long after the other parents had scattered.
“I love you.” In the empty parking lot, it was safe to finally speak the words, and she did, repeatedly, until she noticed a group of teenagers in bathing suits and shorts headed toward the community center stopping to gape at her, a lone woman weeping and waving at air.
She’d never known how fast a week could go by, especially when each individual hour crawled. From the moment she cracked an eye open in the morning, every single empty moment seemed to stall out and hang suspended in time in the hot, increasingly messy, and stuffy apartment. Without Alabama, her life felt untethered, directionless. She had one goal for the week, and she couldn’t face it.
Then, suddenly, the week was almost up. Where had it gone? She’d barely dragged herself off the couch since Alabama’s send-off. Now she had to act.
One thing was clear: She couldn’t go through this sober. She looked above the refrigerator and found an old bottle of gin. It must have been left by some guy, because she couldn’t stand the stuff. But what money she’d been able to scrounge from underneath seat cushions and the bottoms of drawers had already been spent on cigarettes and refilling her Seconal prescription.
A note had to be written, and she decided on Bev as the recipient. She was too much of a coward to write to Alabama. And maybe this way Alabama would assume it had all been an accident. She also wanted to write to her mother, to tell her good-bye and apologize for being such a disappointment, but again, she lacked the courage. Her mother was sick now, recovering from pneumonia. Merely thinking the words
caused her to burst into tears and curl into a ball beneath the afghan.
So Bev it would be, and only Bev.
She gulped down three glasses of gin and wrote the letter out on one of Alabama’s old spiral notebooks, spilling the words across the page as fast as her hand would move. The apartment’s window unit had been on the fritz for a year and a half, and the air felt stifling. She sweated, poured her heart out, and cried.
When she was done, she didn’t even read it over. She fished her address book out of a drawer and found the page with all Bev’s addresses, which her mother had been dictating to her over the phone all these years in the hopes that someday there would be a reconciliation. Her sister had moved several times, and Diana hadn’t been methodical about keeping it all straight. Now fifteen years of information stared at her higgledy-piggledy all over the page, the numbers and street names swimming before her eyes. Her sister lived in a town called New Sparta, she was pretty sure. She swilled another drink and copied the address.
Then she tore the house apart searching for a stamp.
She had no stamps.
In the end, she was forced to walk down the road and buy one at the post office, which thankfully wasn’t too far away. The postal clerk there acted snooty toward her—sniffing the air as if Diana reeked of alcohol. “You don’t smell like Chanel No. 5 yourself,” Diana snapped at her.
And then she thought,
What if this is the last person on earth I ever talk to?
She smiled, adding, “Guess I shouldn’t start cocktail hour so early, huh?”
The woman wrinkled her nose but took her grubby coins, and Diana was able to watch the letter land in the bin of outbound mail. Bev bound.
She dragged back to the apartment and laid out the Seconal. Then she sat down for all the last things. Her last record (Joni Mitchell) to be listened to with her last meal (a cheese sandwich). Her last cigarette. A last nasty gin and tonic. Three more last cigarettes.
Finally, she inhaled a ragged breath and picked up the little pill bottle. She flipped the top.
Her thumbnail ripped and she leaped up, cursing.
What the hell?
She held the bottle up, practically to her nose. It was a new childproof kind, with incoherent instructions communicated via minuscule arrows circling the cap. She shook the bottle, frustrated by the familiar rattle of pills inside that she couldn’t get to. She tried again, grumbling under her breath.
If Alabama were here . . .
That thought only upset her more, and she ran to the closet and rooted around until she found a hammer. Then she returned to the coffee table and, clutching the tool two-handed like an ax, she whacked at the bottle repeatedly. Mostly she missed, but finally she scored a glancing hit that sent the bottle flying across the room. It crashed into the wall and fell to the floor, still unopened.
She dropped to her knees, crying. “I can’t do this!”
It wasn’t just that she was thirty-five and couldn’t open a childproof cap. It was that she couldn’t do
Her plan. It was all wrong. She hated herself, hated the life she’d squandered, but leaving Alabama this way was wrong.
There had to be another way. Her mother would help. Of course she would. True, she only had her pension and Social Security, and now that she lived in the retirement home she didn’t have room to take them in. But maybe she could lend them a little to get them by.
Or, if worse came to worst, she could crawl to Bev and beg for help. Yes, she’d even stoop to that.
Realization hit Diana like a cold slap.
Her hands rose to her mouth, as if to cover the scream that caught in her throat.
Heart somersaulting in her chest, Diana jumped up, reeling for the door. She had to get that letter back.
She streaked out of the apartment and then had to dash back up the stairs to retrieve her purse. She would need ID. Although surely the post office lady would recognize her.
“Remember me? Chanel No. 5? I’ve made a terrible mistake. . . .”
Was it even possible to unmail a letter? She might have to lie, might have to say the letter contained explosives, or some kind of poison. Something extremely illegal. They would arrest her, but once the authorities figured out it was only a plain, old, ordinary letter—
She was so focused on her objective, so caught up in this new dilemma, she stepped off the curb without looking.