Settle and Sway

By Jennifer Stern
May 9th, 2014

Back to Issue

Without warning, Anna asks me why I had the stroke. I consider half-truths I can give her—that a daughter should not poke her nose into the particulars of her mother’s health, that I had forgotten to say kein ayin hara when my professor called me clever. We are in my toy shop, and I am looping strands of pumpkin lights across the windowsills. They throw an orange glow across her face.

I force a smile. “Am I a doctor now?”

“You never asked?”

“It was a long time ago.”

Anna’s eyes sharpen.

“Get to work,” I say. “I’ll think back some other time.”

Anna pulls balls of cotton from a bag, brushing them with a glue stick and pushing them down against the sales counter, then pulling the threads so that they cling like spiderwebs and remind customers that they still need a Halloween costume (along the far wall), a bag of candy (here, in translucent bins). “This week,” she says. There is glue in her hair, a dried smear of it around a curl and down one of the earrings that she got for her sixteenth birthday last summer. I mean to tell her, but then her phone chirps and her fingers speed across the keyboard and she is gone again, drawn away into her world.

Anna hasn’t asked for details before—she has taken the stroke as a given, having never known me to have more than one good arm and leg. It happened an hour before she was born. I remember bits of it—the blips of sound in the operating room where I had the emergency C-section, the way the neurologist’s mustache bobbed up and down when he explained that the pregnancy had driven my blood pressure sky-high.

And later—the beige of the hospital blanket that I adjusted and adjusted so that half of me was always covered. The afternoon I spent examining my good leg—wiggling the toes, pointing the foot, taking it through all the machinations that a 22-year-old leg is capable of. The foot on the bad leg flopped sideways underneath the wadded blanket. The doctor talked about antihypertensives, and I muttered something about Mr. Bill, and Mother, who slept on a hospital cot every night, wondered in a whisper why the stroke had not instead happened to my 98-year-old roommate, whose grandchildren must have been ten years older than me.

Anna looks up from her phone and asks me for ten dollars so she can go buy ice cream with her friends. I hand her my wallet. “Anna—” I say, but I have not come up with a way to tell her that the stroke was caused by my pregnancy with her, and I picture it coming out wrong; I picture Anna asking—if not for me? I tell her to bring home a quart of Vanilla Bean and she sticks another five in her pocket.

 

On her way to buy groceries, Mother comes into the shop and closes the front door behind her.

“Anna’s out,” I tell her.

“She’s with that boy again, isn’t she?”

I brace.

“It just makes you want to cry, the way she puts on all that lipstick and doodies up her hair,” Mother says. “All that effort.”

“She’s 16.”

“But all that effort.” Mother grimaces. She pulls out her shopping list and slides it over so that I can add hummus and cupcakes and the 12-pack of Vitamin Water that always takes up half of our fridge at home.

In the afternoon, I gather the last of the summer toys—the boxed wading pools and sprinkler sets, the blue and yellow squirt guns—hugging them against my body with my good arm, setting them in the back room. I restock the front shelves with Dracula masks and plastic skeletons. An hour before closing, the man that I like to watch comes in. He guides his daughter, who looks about five, to the Reading Corner. I admire the way that the man squats on one knee to flip through the picture books with her. The man and his daughter come in every few weeks—the girl holding a cupcake or a wet string of taffy that I would otherwise confiscate. The man’s hair falls across his forehead in appealing messy waves. His ring finger is bare.

They bring All the World to the register and I reach for the book in the man’s hand. “Hi,” I say.

The man smiles.

I smile back. I am glad that I put on mascara this morning.

The shop is my own—a sliver of space in the historic district, small enough that I run it by myself, counting the three customers who come in over the remainder of the afternoon. I ring up two purchases. I write down points for my discussion with Anna on receipt paper with a green pencil.

She needs to know this: if I could go back to that night when she came into being—when she was all of two cells and I was intact—and if I could choose differently, so that there would be no Anna, no stroke (both such statistical improbabilities), I would not make the trade.

She does not need to know about the weeks I spent in the rehab hospital—the way I lurched and swung the bad leg in wide arcs as the therapist chatted about handles for the toilet, seats for the shower. Modifications. I would walk, the therapist said, though he doubted I would manage stairs. The arm was another matter—it still hadn’t begun to hold its own weight in the air and would probably remain curled against my body, bent tight and spastic at the elbow and wrist and fingers.

There were 14 stairs up to my second-story apartment, the therapist pointed out. And then Mother pointed out that there were none in her house—not even a front step or a basement. This is the first of the reasons that Anna and I are living with her—stairs being generally unmovable things, after all.

 

Anna might ask, if having a child paralyzed you, why on Earth would you want to be surrounded by children’s toys all day? I will have to admit that this question is fair. I can only say that there is something pleasing in the way green ponies have the same nylon manes that they did when I combed them with two good hands, and how between the Easter eggs and the beach balls and the bearded nutcrackers, all of the seasons pass through the store.

 

Late in the evening, as I lie in bed with a book, laughter wafts in from the window. I roll up and onto my good leg, standing, then I switch off the lights and pull aside the window shade. It is Anna under the street light, her little purse slung behind her shoulder, and the boy—his hand is on her arm, his head leans in toward hers. I drop the shade. Lift it slightly.

A whistle comes from the kitchen. I make my way down the hall and find Mother taking the teakettle off the stove. “Anna’s outside,” I say.

“She should come inside.”

“Give her a minute,” I say. “She’s with her boyfriend.”

“He’s not her boyfriend,” Mother says.

I look at her. “Did something happen?”

Mother gives a slight, chagrined smile.

I brace. “What?”

“He’s no boyfriend.”

I pull a box of chocolates from the cabinet and sort through it, a certain protective impulse tightening in my chest. “Anna can have all the boyfriends she wants.”

“You saw the way he was looking at your hand.”

There was the grimace, the quick shift of the eyes. I finger the wrapper of a chocolate pumpkin, flicking the orange foil back and forth. “She asked about the stroke.”

Mother blinks. “Oh, sweetheart,” she says.

“Should I lie?”

“Why would you lie to your daughter?”

There are reasons—that already, she jumps up in the middle of homework to see if I need an apple juice from the fridge. That her eyes will trail after my foot when it catches on the rug, as if she’s guarding me against a fall, and how it is only after a chirp of the phone or a honk in the driveway that they’ll lose their vigilance for me. How when she holds her face in a certain way, I think: this is a child whom guilt could cloister.

“What good will knowing do her?” I ask.

“Beth,” Mother says. “There is value in truth.”

I rest my forehead in my hand and take a breath.

“She has a good head on her shoulders,” Mother says. “She’d know no one blames her.”

“And if I say I just fell and hit my head?”

“You’d make her a schnook.”

“She’d be a happy kid.”

“Ostriches are happy,” Mother says. She bends forward, pretending to bury her head in the sand.

 

If I valued truth as much as Mother does, I would tell Anna this: six months after you were born, on a night that Grandma watched you, your dad and I sat out in the car and drank a liter of rum and maybe 12 ounces of pineapple juice and we tried to calculate the probability that a baby we created at some point in our lives would be you. We came up with one in 12 trillion, and then after we finished, he proposed. My mouth was sticky and my bad hand was throbbing, and the diamond caught the light of the dashboard and shot little bright dots up to the ceiling. He proposed because of you—because when he held you, his eyes lit up the way they still do when he comes twice a month to pick you up for the weekend.

Why did I say no? I just could not see myself with your dad long-term. We were college buddies. Old roommates. We shared a taste for clove cigarettes and butterscotch Schnapps.

My decision that night is the second reason that you and I are living in your grandma’s house. But sitting in the car, I did not realize—there was no dichotomy, no either-or—just a cloying aftertaste and a doubling of the lights on the dashboard and a realization, at first foggy and then surprisingly clear, that I was no longer in college.

 

At the shop, the man I like to watch comes to the counter to order a vintage train set for his daughter’s birthday. Up close, his eyes are tired. I bring up a catalog, show him the different models and place his order in the computer. He has had a hard life—I can see it in the small lines etched under his eyes, in the set of his jaw. I tell him that the train set will be ready to pick up on Saturday. My stomach roils pleasantly when he thanks me.

But Saturday, I will have to talk to Anna, and this settles uncomfortably inside me as I unpack the afternoon shipments, as I fill the bins near the cash register with mellowcreme candies and wax vampire teeth. It stays with me as I lock the shop and sit out front, waiting for Anna to pick me up. It is one of those October evenings that is more purple than black and my nose singes with cold, with the acridity of burning leaves, and when Anna pulls up to the curb and opens the passenger door, I say, “Anna, you are missing out on all this air.”

She gives a smile that is at once polite and patronizing.

I tuck my good leg inside and ease into the passenger seat. The car is Anna’s—Mother and I took her to the auto lot after she agreed to start driving me home in the evenings. Anna does a shoulder check like I taught her and pulls away from the curb. I watch her eyes flit between the road in front of us and the rearview mirror. She is still a nervous driver.

“How was school?” I ask.

She glances at my seatbelt to make sure it is hooked. “Fine,” she says.

I grapple for something that will catch her attention. “Did you have photography class?” Since she was in grade school, she has collected National Geographics and talked about becoming one of the people who take pictures of the Serengeti, the Nepalese highlands.

Anna changes lanes. “I have it every day.”

“Oh.”

At home, Mother pulls groceries from a brown bag and sets them in the refrigerator—a bottle of ketchup, a loaf of bread, three huge cabbages whose earthy smells hold just a hint of rot. “They were on sale,” she explains.

I eye the cabbages. “I have no idea where those are going to fit.”

“They’ll fit in the crisper,” Mother assures me.

“I’m sure they fit just fine at Jewel.”

“How would you know?” Mother asks. “We never cook together anymore.”

Anna walks into the kitchen and sniffs, suppressing a smirk. She hands me a glass with ice water and asks: Do you want a sandwich? A banana? I shake my head. She zips her jacket to the neck.

Mother turns to Anna, watching as she shrugs her purse higher onto her shoulder. “Don’t go out,” she says. “Just for this once.”

My breath catches with surprise. I quietly fold up the grocery bag and slide it under the sink. I wouldn’t mind it if Anna stayed in.

“Grandma,” Anna says. “I have a party.”

“You always have a party.”

Anna shrugs and looks pleased.

 

Anna. I remember how, on her third birthday, we let her play at the shop late at night, after I had locked the doors for the evening, after I had stocked the shelves with the day’s shipments and updated my inventory lists. Anna bounced on the hobbyhorse and climbed up on the giant stuffed giraffe near the cash register, pulling at its ears. Mother stood close, one arm bracing Anna’s back, the other pointing out colors—the brown of the giraffe’s spots, the red of its tongue.

With my good hand, I fingered a little toy father, running my finger over the brim of his hat and setting him down next to his plastic children. I caught Mother’s eye and nodded my head toward Anna. “She should have a family.” We ate gummy worms from a bulk bag and watched Anna as she grabbed at a stack of letter blocks, fisting two blocks, turning them around in her hands.

“Q,” Anna read off one block. “X,” she read off another.

I blinked. I looked at Mother, surprised.

Mother’s eyes glowed. “That’s my granddaughter,” she said. She explained that she had been working with Anna, teaching her letters during the day while I was at the shop. I smiled behind my hand. I sat beside Anna on the floor, showing her one letter block and then the next. When Anna tired of reading and began to clap the blocks together, I thought: she has a family.

 

And on statistical improbabilities—here is one of the truths that I have collected over the years: of all women who become pregnant, one in 12,000 will develop a bleed in her brain. And another: at 12,000 prenatal checkups, when told how improbable a bleed would be, each woman will let out a sigh of relief.

I say this to Mother at dinner after I knock my can of Coke over with my bad elbow. I right the can with my good hand and then do a little ta-da.

Mother brings over a roll of paper towels and sops up the mess. She forms that wrinkle that she gets in her brow. “One in 12,000,” she says. “It’s obscene.”

“I’m a lottery winner,” I joke.

“You’re a victim,” she says. There is a certain resonance in her voice.

I blink. “Well,” I say. I eat a bite of étouffée.

Mother takes a bite and calms. Her shoulders relax and her eyes close briefly in appreciation of the salmon. It hits me funny, Mother’s expression. I think, I really should cook with her more often, like we used to.

I say to her, “Let’s get you that waffle pan from Kohl’s.”

Mother says, “Let’s get you a manicure.”

I snort and glance at my bad hand.

Mother says that it is a perfectly fine hand but that it looks neglected—here, a long cuticle, and here, a jagged nail, and why no polish?

“A fine hand?” I say. “It’s useless.”

“Not useful,” she says. “But a fine hand.”

 

On Saturday morning, Mother and Anna bring pots of mums to the shop to set in the windowsills. I duck my head when I see Anna, keeping my eyes on the garden sacks in her arms, the plastic wrapped around little pods of yellow and orange and fuchsia. Two customers come in. Mother frowns at their feet—the way they point straight forward in parallel, hitting the ground one after the next in graceful rhythm.

Before lunch, the man I like to watch comes in to pick up the train set I ordered for him. I nod my head at the box on the counter. It is large and bulky, probably 30 pounds, wrapped in festive yellow paper. “It’s your daughter’s birthday, right?” I ask. “I see her in the store sometimes. She’s cute.”

The man smiles. “Thanks.”

I slide the wrapped package closer and glance at his bare ring finger. “Does your daughter live with her mother?”

The man looks surprised. “Yeah.”

I nod. I look down at my good hand and rub my finger over my thumbnail. I point at Anna, who is stacking books onto a corner shelf. “She’s 16,” I say. “She’s grounded today. She got in trouble at school for writing on a desk.”

The man leans in toward me. His eyes take on a shine. “My daughter’s in trouble, too.”

I lean forward, my good arm against the counter.

“Remember those plastic wind-up chattering teeth?” he asks. “Our neighbor let her play with his. She broke off a piece of tooth and put it under her pillow.”

Mother peers over from the Reading Corner, her eyes grazing the man and meeting mine.

“Smart girl,” I say.

“She’ll be an alderman someday.” The man’s mouth curls up into a slight, amused smile. “Well, I’d better go.” He lifts the train set, straining against its weight and balancing it against his chest.

“Let me help you,” I say. I come around the counter and put my hand on the side of the box.

The man glances at my bad arm, uncertain.

Mother’s eyes sharpen. She watches the man watch my arm. Her brows rise with indignance—she has caught him in the act of disrespecting me.

I hadn’t planned on more than a friendly gesture, and maybe a slight graze of the man’s hand, but Mother’s expression grates at me to the point that, instead, I reach for the underside of the box and give a pull. The man looks uneasy, but when I tell him to let go, he does as I ask. The box slides against my chest. I arch my back to steady it—it probably weighs a quarter of what I do—and then I look at Mother to assure her that there is nothing to disrespect.

Anna holds herself taut and watches me, ready to help.

Distracted by her expression, I must have shifted, because in the next moment the box starts to lean into its own weight. The man steps forward and grabs for it, but his grip is not quite right and I let go too early. The box crashes to the floor with a smack and a sound of cracking plastic. Anna springs forward and I promise her that I’m fine, and she hides a surprised little smile behind her hand.

Then the four of us stand in a square and stare downward. The yellow wrapping shines under the light. After a time, I mutter, “We offer refunds.”

“It’s my fault,” the man says.

Mother turns back to the Star Wars display behind her and takes up her dust wand, running it over the figures. “Son of a gun,” she says, leaning toward the plastic Yoda as if sharing a private thought. “What kind of man lets a disabled woman carry his box for him?” Her voice is just loud enough.

The man looks at her, startled. He gives a cough. His eye catches mine by accident and he looks away. “It’s nothing,” he says, and picks up the box, and when I tell him that we’ll order him a new train set, he waves it off and heads out to his car. After this, the only evidence that time has passed is the sway of the hanging sign on the door and the empty space on the counter where the box used to be.

I watch the sign lose its sway and settle.

Later, when Mother asks us what we want for lunch—whether we would prefer the Cajun down the street or the Chinese from the shop on Dempster—I hand her a twenty and she slides it back to me, insisting that she wants to pay. It occurs to me that every stray look at my hand is an opportunity for her to pull me close—like she did that night 16 years ago, after I gave the engagement ring back to Anna’s father, after he dropped me off at home (without any stairs, not even a front step).

That night comes to me in bits and fragments: the streetlight outside the window, the plasticky squeak of the kitchen chair. The way tea and cookies congeal in a sour mouth. Me at the kitchen table, guilty, realizing that Anna would grow up in two one-parent homes. Mother’s hand on my shoulder as she assured me that Anna and I could stay with her as long as we liked.

The hand tightened when I didn’t answer.

I thanked her.

“I get what you’re going through,” Mother said.

Words came to me—latch-key kid, broken home.

Mother said, “I sat at that same table after your father took off.”

And now me with my chin in my good hand, listening.

“Three years it took me to see what a con your father was. And here I was thinking that he was just working late every night.” Mother put her hands up, one on the side of each eye where blinders would be placed on a horse, and cocked her head around as if failing to see.

Something took form inside of me then—some understanding of the value Mother placed on truth, of the connection she drew between an untimely stroke and a man who would cheat; some remembrance of a desert island tale that she read me as a girl in which the stranded characters, facing adversity from forest and sea, learned that their best chance was to close ranks and stick together.

 

Tonight, Anna is staying in. Her phone is off, and she says that there’s nowhere she has to be. I think she’s lying—she has been watching me all afternoon as if not quite convinced that it was only the train set that was broken.

We’re in flannel, and our socks have toes. The ten o’clock news portends snow. I am missing the man at the store, and wanting to commit him to memory, I’m wondering whether his face had been etched at the mouth or the eyes, whether his lips would have looked as full in natural light.

Anna’s eye catches mine by accident. She points at the television and echoes the reporter who says that the Sears Tower is changing its name.

“Did you break a date tonight?” I ask.

Anna shrugs and gives an embarrassed smile.

I put my hand next to hers, so that the fingers brush. Then we sit and watch the news give way to Saturday Night Live.

Mother is asleep in the bedroom down the hall, and when I hear her sounds, her little snorts and tussles, I think: how well she sleeps with Anna here, with me here, the threat of the man at the store long past. It occurs to me that the last reason we still live with her is that a failed marriage and a daughter’s disaster have put lines on her face that only relax with us.

It’s funny what we do when mothers need. I watch Anna keep me company—how her foot fidgets, how she drums her fingers on her thigh as if to a rhythm she’s picked up somewhere else. How she takes those long glances at her phone. How she stays. How she would be trapped by the thought that she’s created her own mother’s need.

Then I offer a lie that, in justification, could push her years one way and not the next:

“About the stroke,” I say to Anna. “I fell. I hit my head.”

Anna keeps her eyes on the television but from the side, her lips thin.

“What?” I ask.

That funny expression on her face.

It occurs to me that she thinks I am lying, that she has already made the connection between a 16-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old stroke. Adamant, I say, “It was a bad fall.”

She says, “You don’t have to—”

“—I hit my head,” I say. “And there was a bleed.”

Something passes over her face. It’s not relief. It’s wanting. She’s wanting to believe me. I say, “You know I’m a klutz.”

She doesn’t look at me. But after a time, a tacit agreement passes between us, and she hardens her voice and says, “You really need to be more careful.”

I smile. “I’ll take it under consideration.”

We sit for a minute, and then I reach for the remote control and turn up the volume on the TV.

Anna’s eyes follow the commercial. Her jaw is still tense, but I am satisfied. Because I am picturing the natural progression of things—Anna will graduate high school, she will move into a dormitory, she will sneak into the bars, she will change her major twice before it occurs to her one morning on the quadrangle, walking home with her friends from a night that has not yet ended, that she does not want to sit behind a desk when she grows up. She will apply for a Master’s in Photojournalism; she will take pictures in Kenya and Guatemala; she will send me a copy of her first National Geographic cover and I will stand at the mailbox with the magazine in my hand and call Mother out from the kitchen, and we will flip through the pages and talk about how she doesn’t come to visit as much as she should.

Maybe we’ll stand at the mailbox and say—it’s a shame that she’s moved away. That she doesn’t come to see if we want any leftover roast beef, or to ask if we need apples or toothpaste at Jewel. How rarely she pulls up in the driveway with her children in the back seat, to sit and eat apple cake when it rains, or to pick strawberries from the vine in the backyard on evenings that are warm with spring, and lengthening.