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D E C E M B E R  1 9 9 9

Fiction Assistance

Illustrations by Kathy Osborn

Going back to her parents' small house was like entering a foreign force field, where the normal rules of transaction -- logic and reason and predictability -- seemed suspended

by Roxanna Robinson

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

ADELE had not had a good night. She had finally gone to sleep around midnight, but had waked up again at two-fifteen. This was not a surprise: she always had trouble sleeping at her parents' house.

Adele was forty-eight years old, and lived alone. She had been divorced for twelve years, and her son, Philip, was at college in California. She lived on the top floor of a brick house on West Fourth Street, in Greenwich Village, overlooking other people's gardens. Her apartment was small but sunny, and in the mornings she watched the neighborhood cats parade slowly along the walls dividing the gardens. Her life was quiet, and she worked at home, translating novels from the French.

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Adele liked all of this. She liked her solitary life, with her view over the back gardens, and she liked the silence and rigor of translating. She liked the notion that she was effecting a linguistic transition, making something possible that was otherwise impossible, creating a useful channel of understanding between two vast and powerful oceans.

Adele had driven down to Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, where her parents lived. Her father, Sam Bolton, had been a hand surgeon at Johns Hopkins for nearly forty years. He was now ninety, and her mother, Bess, was eighty-seven. They were both still mentally vigorous, but physically they were becoming rather frail. Sam had had his second hip-replacement operation two months earlier, and Bess's trouble with her knees was getting worse. Since Sam's operation Adele had been coming down every few weeks to help out.

Beforehand Adele envisioned each of these visits as orderly and productive. She saw herself as helping to translate her parents' old life into a new, still unlearned one. But that was not the way the visits turned out. Going back to her parents' small house was like entering a foreign force field, where the normal rules of transaction -- logic and reason and predictability -- seemed suspended. It was a strange, disorienting, gravity-free realm where the air sang and jangled with dysfunction, where her own competence somehow evaporated, and giddy chaos threatened.

From two-fifteen until four-thirty Adele lay awake, reading, in the blond-wood contemporary bed her uncle had given her mother when he got rid of all his Swedish modern, in the 1970s. The austere bed looked out of place: the room had lavender walls and white ruffled curtains, and was full of dark Victorian furniture from Adele's grandparents. The mahogany sleigh bed had gone to Adele's older sister, in San Diego, when the Swedish bed arrived. Adele's mother had draped a length of thin lavender cloth over the wooden headboard in an effort to make the new bed blend with the room. Her effort was unsuccessful. The angular bed, with its loose lavender hood, looked merely bizarre, as though it had been set there among the ruffles and mahogany according to some alternate-universe theory of decoration inaccessible to ordinary mortals.

At four-thirty Adele gave up and took a sleeping pill, so when she woke again, past nine, she was groggy. She could hear her parents, who had been up since eight, keeping their voices down for her sake but already started in on the day's arguments. Sam was downstairs in the kitchen, and Bess was about to follow him down again. The guest-room door was next to the stairs. Adele heard her mother carefully maneuvering herself into the electric chair that shuttled majestically up and down the staircase.

"I've already called him," Bess said in a low, strained voice, trying to make her words carry to the floor below without waking Adele in the next room. "I just think we should see if there's too much in it."

"What do you want me to do?" Sam called from the kitchen. His voice was loud and antagonistic. At the hospital he had been the head of his department for nearly twenty years, and he did not take direction well. Adele could hear the stair-chair arms thudding into place as Bess settled herself in the seat.

"What do you want me to do?" Sam shouted again, still louder and now impatient. Adele heard the click of the switch and then the low hum of the stair-chair as her mother began to descend.

"What do you want me to do?" Sam called for the third time, his voice raised and irritable.

There was another click as the stair-chair stopped at the bottom, and the heavy arms clunked up and then thudded down again as Bess climbed out. Bess began walking toward the kitchen. She spoke when she got so close that she didn't have to yell, but her voice registered her exasperation. She spoke to Sam so slowly as to be almost insulting.

"I told you," Bess said. "I think there's too much food in the refrigerator, and that's why it's making that noise. I've called the repair man, but before he makes a special trip, I want to take some of the things out to see if that's what's causing it."

Adele sat up in bed. Since her father had come home after his operation, friends and neighbors had taken turns bringing dinners to her parents. A list was stuck up on the refrigerator door, with names and dates, so that Sam and Bess would know who was bringing the meal that night. The friends took considerable trouble with the meals, fixing things that were interesting and often exotic, but neither Sam nor Bess ate very much, and they didn't like fancy food. By now the refrigerator was crammed with half-full plastic containers half-covered with foil, bowls of limp vegetables in pale sauces, pans with small, hard tracts of curried chicken or baked lasagna, their surfaces darkened and desiccated in the bleak interior chill of the refrigerator.

When Adele came downstairs, her mother was sitting by the telephone in an ankle-length pink bathrobe. Her salt-and-pepper gray hair stood out around her head in a fine, pale mist. Sam was standing at the refrigerator. Six cartons of milk stood on the table. He was holding up a jar of mayonnaise and frowning.

"Let's just see what happens," Bess said to him.

Already annoyed, Adele said as she came into the room, "Mother, the refrigerator doesn't get overstrained because you have a lot of leftover food in it." Neither of her parents answered. "The refrigerator just keeps a particular space cold," she went on. "A certain cubic area." She was proud of coming up with "cubic." "It doesn't matter how much stuff is in it." She said this with certainty, wondering as she spoke if she was right. But surely she was. "The refrigerator doesn't care. Well -- unless you put hot things in it, a casserole right from the oven or something."

"Putting things in the refrigerator from the oven?" Sam turned around and stared challengingly at Adele. His white hair stood straight up at the crown of his head. He wore wrinkled cotton pajamas and a handsome Black Watch plaid bathrobe that Adele had given him for Christmas.

"If you did," Adele said, aware that she had allowed a dangerous digression into her argument.

"Why would we put things into the refrigerator straight from the oven?" Sam asked. He sounded disgusted and cross, as though Adele had accused him of doing it. "What would be the point of that?"

"I mean," Adele said doggedly, "that your refrigerator isn't making a noise because of what's in it." She paused. The refrigerator was not, so far as she could tell, making any unusual noise at all. It was humming innocuously. They all listened.

"Just put them on the table," Bess said to Sam.

Sam put the mayonnaise jar next to the milk cartons. Adele leaned over and looked at the dates on the milk cartons, which were in varying states of fullness.

"Mother, half of these are already outdated," she said. "Do you want me to throw them out for you? That way -- "

"Now, you just let me take care of the milk cartons," Sam said in a patronizing way. He was the one who drank milk. "I keep pretty close track of these things."

Adele looked at Bess, who rocked slightly in her chair and said nothing. "So the repairman is coming?" Adele asked.

Bess nodded uncertainly. "I called him. I don't know when he's coming, but I called him. But the problem may be all those milk cartons, you see."

"But what's the noise?" Adele asked. "I don't hear any noise."

"Well, it was making a loud noise earlier," Bess said defensively. "That's when I called the repairman, to see if he'd come and take a look at it. He's the one who fixed the heater in your father's study."

"Wasn't broken," Sam said in a triumphant undertone. He lifted out a casserole.

"Well, made it work again," Bess said.

The kitchen was small and square, with yellow walls and white metal cabinets over the sink and counters. Most of the room was taken up by a long pine table. The end near the sink and the door to the dining room was where they ate. Three dark-blue woven place mats were always on it. The other end of the table was near the telephone and the back door, and it was covered with piles of mail. Now the end with the place mats was crowded with half-full milk cartons. In the middle of Adele's place mat was a large mayonnaise jar.

"Well, I'm going to have some breakfast," Adele said. "Can I fix anything for either of you?"

"I've already made my breakfast," Sam said. "Your mother's not hungry. Like some toast?"

"Don't you want anything, Mother?" Adele asked. Bess shook her head. She had always been thin, and lately she seemed to have begun to slip deliberately toward insubstantiality, her skin paler and paler, now almost translucent.

"I'd love some toast, thanks, Daddy," Adele said. "Do you have any decaf coffee, Mother?"

"I think so," Bess said. "I try to keep everything my children want. I think it's in there."

They stored their food in a narrow standing metal cupboard, painted pale yellow to match the walls. On the top shelf of this cupboard Adele found a small, ancient jar with several spoonfuls of instant decaffeinated coffee inside. The grains had begun to liquefy into a deep-brown sludge, and she had to scrape to get them out.

Adele moved the mayonnaise jar and set her place at the table, putting a flowered plate, an orange-juice glass, a napkin, and silverware next to the giant stand of milk cartons. The toaster gave a resentful whir and smartly popped up two slices of toast that were nearly black. The toaster always did this, no matter where the control lever was set. Sam took them out and put them, unbuttered, on Adele's plate.

"There you are," he said. Sam's place was unthreatened by the cartons, and he sat down to his boiled egg. He cracked the shell with a knife.

"Don't you want a piece, Mother?" Adele asked. "I'll butter it for you."

"Well, maybe I'll have a half," Bess said.

She made her way cautiously from the rocking chair by the telephone to the table and sat down with the others. Adele buttered a piece of toast and handed it to her.

"If you want me to," Adele said, "I'll go through all those things in the refrigerator with you. I'm sure we'll find stuff we can throw out."

"The trouble with those meals is they had too much seasoning," Sam said. He scooped the soft innards of the egg into a bowl, where they collapsed, loosing a dense orange tide. "Too spicy. Kept me awake."

"Couldn't you ask the people not to use spices?" Adele asked reasonably.

"They don't listen," Sam said with a thin, intolerant smile.

"There," Bess said loudly. They looked at her. She held her index finger up, her head high and tilted. "Listen. There it is again."

All three of them looked at the refrigerator. Its door was covered with yellowed and fraying newspaper clippings about various family members. "LOCAL RESIDENT FINDS GIANT MUSHROOM" was the biggest headline. They sat and listened. The refrigerator was definitely making a loud noise. Things had changed internally, and it had moved into some new and interfering gear. A hostile rattling sound came from the motor.

"You see?" Bess said.

"It's not the milk," Adele pointed out.

"Maybe you should take some more things out," Bess said to Sam. Sam rose from his chair and shuffled to the refrigerator.

"The problem isn't the things in it," Adele said, exasperated. "If it were, taking them out would have helped."

"What?" Sam asked, turning to look at her.

"If it had been the milk, then since the milk is all on the table, the noise wouldn't be coming again now," Adele said. She was aware that she sounded unclear.

"But it is coming again now," Sam said. He was frowning.

"Right," Adele said, "but that means -- "

"Take some more things out," Bess said to Sam. Containers topped with aluminum foil, small plates of three or four shriveled carrots, pots with their lids on, began to cover the table top.

"But don't you want some of these things thrown out, Mother?" Adele asked. "I looked at them yesterday, and they're really mostly inedible."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Bess said firmly. She picked up her toast and took a small bite.

"I think your mother knows what she wants to keep and what she doesn't," Sam said. The table was now completely covered with old food. He sat down again and began to tear bits of crust from his toast, sprinkling them onto the orange-and-white sea. The three were silent while they ate.

"I think I'm going to write another letter to the town board," Sam said, frowning. He spoke loudly, over the rattling roar from the refrigerator.

"What about?" Adele asked. Her father was fond of writing letters in which he told people what to do.

"About that stop sign at the intersection of Beech Tree Lane and Route Thirty-five. I've written them before, but they still don't seem to realize how badly designed that intersection is."

"Did they answer your letter from before?" Adele asked.

"They answered it, but I don't think they gave it the serious consideration that it deserves," Sam said. "I don't think they were really paying any attention to it." His toast was now crust-free, and he began to stir the torn-off bits into his egg.

"You did write them twice," Bess pointed out.

Sam looked up at her. "But they haven't properly responded," he explained.

"But they did answer you," Bess said.

"I've told you," Sam said, "I don't think they understand the situation."

"Well, you did tell them," Bess said.

"I know that," Sam said fiercely. "You just told me that."

"I know I told you that," Bess said. "I'm just saying -- "

"I know what you're saying," Sam said.

The telephone rang, and Adele sprang up to answer it. Bess watched Adele as she talked, waiting to be handed the phone.

"Yes," Adele said, not looking at her mother, "yes, it is. This is her daughter."

"Tell him about the noise," Bess said.

"The town board meets on Tuesday," Sam said. He took a bite of his egg-and-toast mixture. "I'd like to get my letter to them before that."

"That's right," Adele said. "It's making a loud noise, that's the problem. Kind of a rattle."

"I've told him that," Bess said. Adele turned so that she was sideways to her mother.

"If I mail it today, it will be brought up on Tuesday," Sam said.

"I don't see why you're writing to them again," Bess, now distracted, said to Sam. "You've already told them what you have to say."

"Well, here -- listen to it," Adele said. She held the telephone out toward the refrigerator, which had ratcheted up again and was drumming loudly and at high speed. "Can you hear that?"

"I've told you why I'm writing to them again," Sam said irritably.

Adele put the phone back to her ear. "Could you hear it?"

"I still don't see why," Bess said.

"Well, it's very loud," Adele said. "Yes, we'll be here. We'll be here all day."

"Is he coming over?" Sam asked.

"Right away," Adele said.

"All right, I'm getting dressed," Bess said, getting up. Her toast lay on her plate, only one small bite taken from it.

"Don't you want the rest of your toast?" Adele asked. She now felt guilty about not giving the telephone to her mother.

"I'm not really hungry," Bess said.

"What about you, Daddy?" Adele asked, trying to make up. "If you want to go up and get dressed, I'll do the dishes."

"That's not the issue, is it?" Sam said, smiling dangerously at her. "What I'm doing here is eating my breakfast, not washing the dishes."


(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Roxana Robinson is the author of Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life (1989) and the novels Summer Light (1988) and This Is My Daughter (1998).

Illustrations by Kathy Osborn.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; Assistance - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 97-104.