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Never Coming Back
Author:Alison McGhee

Never Coming Back

Alison McGhee



Now that my mother was disappearing, I wondered when it began to happen. A few months before her neighbor called to tell me something was wrong, or maybe years ago, when I was in my nomadic twenties and home only once or twice a year? Or did something inside her change in a single moment? Quit working? Decide enough was enough?

Hard to say. Hard to know.

But happen it did, and when I left the southern wild and moved back north it was not to be with her, exactly, because where exactly are you when you begin to disappear? Where do your thoughts go, and the words you once used to express them? Are they still inside you somewhere? Not that she was ever big on words to begin with, my mother.

Was big on words? Had ever been big on words? Is. Was. Are. Were. These were the days of mixed-up tenses.

When Sylvia the nurse called and said, She is/was agitated, she is/was looking for you, she is/was having a tough time, I could get in the car and be there in an hour. They thought my presence would help, and it did. That was what they told me anyway. Which was something that surprised me.

There were many surprises.

“You’re coming back north, Clara?” Sunshine said. “Why? I mean, that’s fantastic, but why?”

“Have you forgotten that north is where winter lives?” Brown said. “The land of snow and ice? The season of your discontent?”

That was Sunshine, my best friend, and Brown, her husband and my other best friend. I pictured them sharing the phone next to their bed, both ears pressed against the receiver. They had cell phones but they still used a landline both upstairs and down. That was what happened when you lived in the Adirondacks, a place where cell service was spotty and things that elsewhere seemed essential, weren’t. Their phones were heavy and black, like old-time phones, because that was what they were, old-time phones, bought at a garage sale for a dollar apiece. Sunshine and Brown liked weight and heft. Or maybe what they liked was permanence.

“Shut up about winter, Brown,” Sunshine said. “Don’t scare her away.”

“If she moves back north, she has to live here,” Brown said, and “Absolutely,” Sunshine said. They were talking to each other in low tones, as if I couldn’t hear them on the other end of the line. This was not uncommon.

“In Old Forge?” I said.

“Duh!” They were still speaking at the same time. They both put the same exclamation mark at the end of the Duh. I could hear it. It scrolled across the bottom of my mind, a black jumpy line with a point at the bottom. !?!?!

“Have you two merged? Become a single entity? Can you no longer speak for yourselves?”

“No, no and yes,” Sunshine said, and “Old Forge,” Brown said again. “Old Forge is where you should live.”

They knew my mother and they had known her for a long time but I hadn’t said a word to them, or to anyone, about what was happening to her, about the fact that she was the reason I was even thinking about moving back. Tell no one, my mother had said, and no one had I told, not even Sunshine and Brown. But it was late that night, and monkey mind had taken over and I was clutching my tiny silver hammer earring for luck and wandering around in the dark until I figured out what to do.

My mother was disappearing and I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to keep her with me, in this world, on this plane of existence, thinking and talking the way I had always known her to think and talk. Sunshine and Brown were the people I had called because they were my best friends. And because even if they were already asleep, they would answer the phone if it rang. That was the kind of people they were.

They were the kind of people who had always been there.

What happens when someone close to you starts to disappear is that they aren’t always there. They are with you and then they aren’t. This happens while their hearts still beat, while their lungs still breathe, while they look directly at you. They talk and laugh and sing and then they don’t. They are here and they are gone, are and were, simultaneously.

“Did I wake you guys up?”

“No. Kind of. Who cares.”

Each of them speaking over the other.

“Old Forge?” I said again, like it was a place I’d never been to before, a kind of mythical place that existed on another planet.

“Old Forge,” they said. “We’re here.”

“We’ll hike and cook and stack wood,” Sunshine said. “We’ll get breakfast at Walt’s Diner. Brown will write his code and I’ll sell my hats and you can do your Words by Winter thing—you can make a living at that, can’t you?—and maybe write another book. It’s been a long time since The Old Man was published.”

“No to writing another book. And yes, I can make a living at Words by Winter.”

“Good,” she said, in a soothing, motherish way, “very good.”

“We can all visit The Fearsome together,” Brown said. “The Fearsome” was his nickname for my mother. “Serenade her with Leonard Cohen songs, eat our dinner out of jars with cocktail forks, help her chop wood. We’ll protect you from her and her from you, more to the point. Unless you’re planning to move in with her in Sterns?”

“Not an option.”

“Didn’t think so. Then Old Forge it is. Come on home.”

“Old Forge isn’t home.”

“It’s half an hour north of Sterns. That makes it home-ish.”

Old Forge, where my mother used to take me once a year, in the summer. We went swimming in Fourth Lake, we had pancakes at Keyes Pancake House, we spent hours wandering through the multi-roomed palace of Adirondack Hardware. We went to the water park, where once, another mother, a mother who wasn’t my mother, took a Polaroid picture of me sitting inside Cinderella’s giant pumpkin and gave it to us. Old Forge was our big summer adventure. Now I thought, Why did we go only once a year? Since it was so close to home, we could have gone there every week if we wanted, every day, for God’s sake.

“Old Forget,” I said. “That’s what I used to call it, when I was a kid. I used to think of it as this magical place.”

“It is a magical place,” Sunshine said. “We’re magical, aren’t we? And we’re here. Come home, Clara.”

“Yeah,” Brown said. “Come home-ish.”

So home-ish I came.

* * *

That particular phone call happened roughly a month after I first noticed anything. I had come home for a long weekend, opened the kitchen cupboard to get a coffee mug and beheld a carton of orange juice, tucked between the plates and bowls, both of which had been pushed aside to make room for it.

“Hey there, Mr. Orange Juice,” I said. “Too cold in the fridge for you?”

I picked Mr. Orange Juice up and carried him out to the dining room, where my mother was deadheading her indoor geraniums. One October years ago she had uprooted them, transplanted them into buckets, and moved them inside to keep them safe from the cold, and then in the course of that long upstate New York winter, decided they were happier inside than outside.