I BOUGHT A BED
Getting over a mother's death.
BY DONALD ANTRIM [The New Yorker, June 17, 2002]
My mother, Louanne Antrim, died on a fine Saturday morning in the month of August, in the year 2000. She was lying in new purple sheets on a hospital-style bed rolled up next to the green oxygen tanks set against a wall in what was more or less the living room of her oddly decorated, dark and claustrophobic house, down near the bottom of a drive that wound like a rut past a muddy construction site and back yards bordered with chain-link fence, coming to an end in the parking lot that served the cheerless duck pond at the center of the town in which she had lived the last five years of her life, Black Mountain, North Carolina. The occasion for my mother's move to North Carolina from Florida had been the death of her father, Don Self, from a heart attack, in 1995. Don Self's widow, my mother's mother, Roxanne, was at that time beginning her fall into senility, and was, in any case, unequipped to manage the small estate that my grandfather had left in her name. What I mean to say is that my grandmother, who came of age in the Great Depression and who brought away from that era almost no concept of money beyond the idea that it is not good to give too much of it to one's children, was unlikely to continue in her husband's tradition of making large monthly transfers into my mother's bank account. Don Self had kept his daughter afloat for a long while-ever since she'd got sober, thirteen years before, and decided that she was an artist and a visionary, ahead of her time-and now, suddenly, it was incumbent on my mother to seize power of attorney over her mother and take control of the portfolio, a coup she might've accomplished from Miami but was better able to arrange through what in the espionage community is known as closework.
Four years later, Roxanne Self passed away. The funeral was held at the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in September of 1999. A week after that, my mother-barely days after having got, as I heard her proclaim more than once, "free of that woman, now I'm going to go somewhere I want to go and live my life"-went into the hospital with a lung infection and learned that she, too, would shortly be dead.
She was sixty-five and had coughed and coughed for years and years. There had never been any talking to her about her smoking. The news that she had cancer came as no surprise. It had grown in her bronchi and was inoperable. Radiation was held out as a palliative-it might (and briefly did) shrink the tumor enough to allow air into the congested lung-but my mother was not considered a candidate for chemotherapy. She had, during the course of forty years of, as they say, hard living, progressively and inexorably deteriorated. The story of my mother's lifelong deterioration is, in some respects, the story of her life. The story of my life is bound up in this story, the story of her deterioration. It is the story that is always central to the ways in which I perceive myself and others in the world. It is the story, or at any rate it is my use of the story, that allows me never to lose my mother.
With this in mind-the story of my mother and me, my mother in me-I will try to tell another story, the story of my attempt, during the weeks and months following her death, to buy a bed.
I should say to keep a bed. I bought several. The first was a big fat Stearns & Foster queen from Bloomingdale's at Fifty-ninth Street and Lexington Avenue. My then girlfriend, R., came along to the store, and together we lay down and compared. Shifman? Sealy? Stearns & Foster? Soft? Firm? Pillow top? I watched R. crawl across a mattress; she bounced up and down with her ass in the air, and I found myself thinking, delusionally, about myself in relation to my mother, who had died the week before, At last, I'm free of that woman! Now I'm going to buy a great bed and do some fucking and live my life.
Two thousand dollars.
Three thousand dollars would've got me a bigger, fatter Stearns & Foster (and, by extension, a bigger, fatter amount of comfort, leading to more contented sleeping, a finer state of love, and an all-round happier, more productive life) or a nearly top-of-the-line Shifman. The Shifmans were appealing, thanks to the company's advertisements describing traditional (anachronistic?) manufacturing details such as the eight-way, hand-tied box spring; and to its preference for natural fibres (compressed cotton and wool) over synthetic foams.
"What do you think, hon? Do you like the pillow top?"
"The big one over there?"
"That one's great."
"How long will one of these things last? Did the guy say?"
"Donald, get the bed that feels best. You'll be able to buy other beds later."
"Later? What do you mean, later? Later in life?"
"If you get a bed and you don't like it you can send it back. Look. You have thirty days. People send beds back all the time. That's what department stores are for."
"Donald, this is something to be excited about! You're buying a great bed for yourself. You deserve it! We should celebrate."
"Are you O.K.?"
"Do you want to try them one more time?"
Which is what we-and, increasingly, I, alone-did. I bought bed No. 1 using my debit card in early September, 2000, went home, called the store, and refused to have it delivered, then went back and upgraded, in late September, to another and more expensive bed (the pillow top), and refused to have that one delivered, after which I set out on what amounted, in retrospect, to a kind of quest or even, one might say, pilgrimage, to many stores, where I tossed and turned and held repetitive, obsessive conversations with professionals and, whenever possible, patient, accompanying friends, my lay public, about beds. Three months passed, during which time I came to learn more than I ever thought I would about mattresses and about the mattress industry in general-not only about how and where the beds are made but about how they are marketed and sold, and to whom-and, as it happened, I learned about other things besides actual beds. I'm referring to comforters, pillows, and sheets.
It might be helpful at this point to say that, during this time that was described and possibly defined by compulsive consumerism, I had a keen sense of myself as a matricide. I felt, in some substantive yet elusive way, that I had had a hand in killing my mother. And so the search for a bed became a search for sanctuary, which is to say that the search for a bed became the search for a place; and of course by place I mean space, the sort of approximate, indeterminate space one might refer to when one says to another person, "I need some space"; and the fact that space in this context generally consists of feelings did not prevent me from imagining that the space-considered, against all reason, as a viable location; namely, my bedroom-could be filled, pretty much perfectly, by a luxury queen-size bed draped in gray-and-white-striped, masculine-looking sheets, with maybe a slightly and appropriately feminine ruffled bed skirt stretched about the box spring (all from Bellora in SoHo). And I imagined, quite logically considering my grief over my mother's passing and over my participation not only in the event of her death that August morning but, as a child and as a man, in the larger narrative of her life-long self-obliteration through alcoholism and alcoholism's chief symptom and legacy, rage-I imagined, or fantasized, that, once cozy and secure in the space filled by the bed, lying alone or with R. atop pillows stacked high like the pillows on beds photographed for home-decorating magazines, I might discover who I would be and how I would carry on without my mother, a woman who died insane and alone, in a dreary little house, in a crappy, rented bed.
There was not much that anybody could do. My mother in the final years of her life had become drastically, clinically paranoid. She cultivated or was the victim of borderline episodes in which she conversed with figures from mythology and religion. Trained as a tailor and costumer, she crafted bizarre, well-made garments that resembled and were meant to be worn as vestments in spiritual ceremonies the purpose of which remained unclear. Everything about these garments-the winglike adornments festooning the back panels, the little baubles and totem objects depending from the sleeves or the lapels, the discordant color palettes displayed in fabric pieces stitched one atop the other like elements in a strange collage-spoke to a symbolism that was deeply private and brilliantly militant. Worn in public, these robes and gowns were guaranteed to cause unease among people accustomed to functioning in society at large. If my mother wore, to an Asheville concert or museum opening, a dark-purple jacket fastened with clown-size buttons and adorned on the front and sides with crisscrossing strips of Thai silk in tropical pastels, a coat emblazoned on the back with an enormous white medallion topped with gold cloth gathered and bunched to resemble a floral cake decoration, a coat finished with more strips of colored silk tied off and hung with drapery tassels descending to varying lengths beneath the hemline, she was not merely acting as a free spirit and doing her thing; she was repudiating the patriarchy and proving her burden as an artist.
Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with the similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends. Her laughter was abrasive, sometimes even frightening. She chewed with her mouth open, often spilling food down her front. Her hair looked at times as if she had cut it herself, in the dark. You were either with her or against her. She believed that her father was not her real father; that her mother had tried to drown her in a pond when she was a child; that her pulmonary specialist wanted to have sex with her; that in death she would be met by Carl Jung, the Virgin Mary, and Merlin the Magician; that she had done her work on earth and that her work was good; that she was one of those who had been chosen to herald the coming new order of beautiful humanity; that she had been an alcoholic for only about a year or so; that in a former life she had died a watery death as a Roman galley slave, shackled to the oars; that men were shits and her children were hostile; that her smoking was her business, and so mind your own fucking business; that her son was an artist just like she was; that she and I should go to therapy together.
She was, for anyone close to her, and especially for those depending on her competency, a threatening person. She had, in fact, lived much of her adult life in a blackout, dreamlessly "sleeping" three hours or less most nights. The loss of REM sleep must have had devastating consequences on her body and mind. She went on screaming campaigns that lasted into the wee hours, and in the morning before dawn could sometimes be found lying on the rug in the living room.
Perhaps her mother had tried to drown her in a pond. The truth may have been as bad as that or worse. My mother may have been a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a perversion of caretaking in which a child is subjected to unwarranted medical interventions, even surgeries. It was suspected by her physicians in North Carolina, as well as by members of our family, that my mother's mother had had a curious habit of taking her only child to the doctor. This is not something I can comment on extensively; I wasn't there-and I object for a variety of reasons to the secondhand psychoanalysis of my mother, working backward from the time of her intense paranoia and delusions of grandeur, through her addictions, marriage, and so on, in search of unifying causes-and yet I can imagine my grandmother Roxanne, in the late nineteen-forties or thereabouts, leading my mother by the hand down some country hospital's white aisles, or sitting with her in the waiting room in a Florida doctor's office. I remember that my mother told stories, when I was young, of operations. What exactly these operations were meant to achieve is a bit of a mystery. One, it seems to me, had to do with the removal of a rib. Can that be right? And there was a famous story that had my mother "waking up" as her doctors pronounced her dead on the table. By the time I was born, Roxanne had become a radical nutritionist, intent on controlling her family's diets and moods; she handed out vitamins and advice to cancer patients who learned about her on the Florida cancer grapevine; she prescribed foods whose use, in some cases (broccoli, kale), was later ratified by the national health industry. I believe she saw herself as a folk hero. It is possible to imagine my mother's death trip as an internalized, masochistically directed act of hatred against her own mother, who used health to suppress everyone around her; and against her father, who, in any number of conceivable scenarios, had been unable to acknowledge how things were for his daughter, or to act as her advocate, in her childhood.
When young, my mother had been popular and a beauty. She was a girl in Tennessee and a teen-ager in Sarasota, Florida, where she met my father. Together, my parents were, as far as I can tell from their yearbooks, one of those successful, envied high-school couples. A friend of theirs, a man who was in love with my mother in college, and had never fallen out of love, described her to me in terms that reveal the force of her sexuality and personality in those days. Because she had no siblings, I have no maternal aunts or uncles who can accurately remember her as a girl. And testimony from my parents' old crowd about later years-after she'd left home, married my father, had her children, and settled down as a wife and mother in graduate-school housing-is hard to come by, as are my own memories, memories of the sort that could add up to form a coherent . . . what? Picture? Impression? Narrative? I was four, five, six years old. My sister, Terry, was three, four, five. It was the early sixties, the tail end-as I think of that era now, almost forty years after our father fell in love with another woman, and our family began coming apart-of the heyday of Southern intellectualism in the style of the Agrarians, when the newly married Episcopalian children of Presbyterians were reading "Finnegans Wake," escaping into Ph.D. programs, drinking bourbon, Martinis, and bargain beer, and staying up all night quarrelling and having affairs and finding out about the affairs, then tossing their children into the back seats of VW bugs and driving by night up or down the coast. To this day, I remain unable to reliably document the progress of my parents' migrations and relocations, the betrayals and reconciliations, the reunions, separations, re-relocations, hospitalizations. Suffice it to say that there is no end to the crazy stories, many of which I have already used too many times as opening gambits on dates.
But what about the bed? In December, I allowed delivery of the pillow top. The Bloomingdale's guys carried it up the stairs, and I dressed it with the sheets and whatnot that I had collected for this occasion. The bed in comparison with the futon I had been sleeping on seemed gigantic. It was gigantic; not only broad but tall, it overpowered the bedroom. Its phallic implications were evident in my invitations to R. to "come over and see it." Things should've ended there, with some promising rambunctiousness with R. and a gradual acceptance of a new order in my house. But that would've required me to be a different person and much farther removed in time from my mother's death. It would've required, as well, that I had never heard anything about Dux.
Dux is one of those companies that produce esoteric, expensive products scientifically engineered to transform your life. When you buy a Dux bed, you gain membership in a community of people who have bought and believe in Dux beds. A Dux bed at first seems peculiarly soft; if you stay on one for a while, you may experience yourself as "relaxed" in a way that can actually be alarming. The initial impression is of settling onto a well-calibrated water bed-on a Dux, you really climb into bed. The company promises a variety of health benefits, some postural, some having to do with increased deep sleep, all having to do with natural latex and with the myriad coils described in the Dux literature as a "system" that allows the bed to shape itself gently to the body, reducing pressure points and therefore the number of times a sleeping person will shift or move about to get comfortable during the night. "Do you have a Dux?" I have heard the cognoscenti say. Dux beds come with a twenty-year warranty-I seem to remember "The Last Bed You'll Ever Buy" as one of the promotional slogans. The beds are manufactured in Sweden, advertised on classical-music radio stations, sold in company-owned stores that look like spas, and they never, ever go on sale.
I don't know how many times, during the early winter of the year my mother died, I marched-typically by myself, though whenever possible with R. or one of those other aforementioned friends-into Duxiana on East Fifty-eighth Street (conveniently adjacent to Bloomingdale's), where I pulled off my shoes and hopped from bed to bed and read and reread the brochures and harassed Pamela, the manager, with every kind of question about this model versus that. I arranged the Hutterite goose-down pillows. I settled in. I turned onto my side. I turned onto my other side. Wonderful. You could choose mahogany or metallic legs that would elevate the bed to a great height, or you could leave the bed low to the floor, in the manner of sleek beds in European hotels. You could tuck the sheets in this way, drape them that way. Cotton top pad? Or latex? I began to sense, during afternoons reclining at the Dux store, that all the decisions I might make from here on out could flow naturally from the purchase of the right bed. Though I already had my new bed (returnable) in my bedroom, I didn't especially like it. I lacked sufficient desire to like the bed. It is true that the bed was large, but in every other respect I found it pedestrian and a letdown, because it was not saving my relationship with R. It was not making my apartment feel like home. It was not writing my book. Worst of all-and this was the failing that hurt the most-it was not allowing me to carry on indefinitely in my search for a bed.
How badly did I want a Dux? I wanted one in exactly the manner and proportion that was appropriate with regard to the product.
I wanted one enough to want to buy one.
It was in this way that a novelist with literary-level sales and a talent for remorse came to lay out close to seven thousand dollars for a mattress.
In the year preceding my mother's death, a year that was characterized by the kind of mood oscillations that accompany the routine progress toward failure of medical therapeutic interventions in advanced cancer cases-the tidal-seeming, almost manic rising and falling, with every piece of news, every stressed-out conversation with Mom or her doctors, of hope and depression, hope and depression, hope and renewed hope and more hope, followed by distracted euphoria and a deeper despair and the weird, impulsive anger that can be directed at practically anybody at any time, the continuum of fear and volatility that is familiar in some form or another to just about anyone who has watched a parent or a child, or a husband or a wife or a lover or a friend, get a little better, then a little worse, then a little better, dying according to the program, as it were-during this year, I more or less stopped working, and I stopped exercising. I read less, went out for dinner with friends less, made love less. I am a cyclist, and for years have had a routine of riding training laps around the park near where I live. My body has been accustomed to this regimen in which a great amount of physical information is available to me, information in the form of sensations, sensations that come with deep inhalations and exhalations as I walk down the street or, while riding, stand in the pedals to climb a hill; or in the awareness I might have of a gain or a loss in my weight; or in the excitement I can feel when touching another person, or when being touched; information in the form of, I suppose, myself, proprioceptively living in space. Little by little, that information disappeared. In the dull absence of myself, I did what my mother had done throughout her life. I sat up nights in my kitchen smoking.
People are fond of saying that the truth will set you free. But what happens when the truth is not one simple, brutal thing? I could not imagine life without my mother. And it was true, as well, that only without her would I feel able to live. I had had enough of Louanne Antrim and was ready for her to be gone. I wanted her dead, and I knew that, in the year of her dying, I would neglect her.
I would and I did. In this, at least, I can claim that I was true to her-to us. I was, after all, her man. It had been my impossible and defining task to be both like and unlike all other men- more specifically, like and unlike her father and her errant, excommunicated ex-husband, my father. What does this mean? I'm not sure I can clearly say. I was never to leave her for another woman-even as this required my having, over the years, a succession of women. I was never to lie to or deceive her; and I lied to and deceived her about everything. When I first began to write and publish novels, it was understood by my mother, and hence unwittingly by me, that I was exhibiting, in whatever could be called my artistic accomplishments, her creative agency, her gifts. I was to have a powerful cock and, at the same time, no cock at all.
"I'll come down soon and stay a few days."
"You don't have to come."
"I want to come."
"I'm not expecting you."
"Don't if you don't want to."
"Don't wait too long. I'm going to die soon."
"How do you know?"
"Dr. McCarrick is trying to kill me."
"He won't take my calls."
"He's a doctor."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. It's a joke. Sort of. Never mind."
"Everyone is against me. You're against me."
"Mom, he's not trying to kill you. No one is trying to kill you. No one wants to kill you."
I put off the visit. I put it off. A dog in the apartment next to mine started barking, and for a while I lost my mind. Then the dog stopped barking and a year had passed and my sister and I were boarding flights from opposite ends of the country to stand beside my mother's bed in the little house near the bottom of the hill that pitched down to the parking lot beside the town lake. It was our practice, my sister's and mine, to fly into Charlotte, rendezvous at the airport car-rental desk, get the car, stop off at Bridges, in Shelby, North Carolina, for barbecue, then head west over the mountains, past Chimney Rock, up around Old Fort, and down into Black Mountain. The drive took three hours. We could've flown to Asheville, thirty minutes from our mother's house. Terry and I travelled this roundabout way, I think, in order to give ourselves time to prepare for the difficult ordeal of being-for one last time, in this case-Louanne's children in Louanne's house. That day, we managed to be in a hurry and to drive slowly at the same time. Terry talked about her children and about a neighbor who, like our mother, had refused nutrition in the final stages of a terminal illness. It was late on a late-summer afternoon. The farms and weathered churches alongside the two-lane highway had never seemed to me so lonely or so lovely, so beckoning, as they did that afternoon. This was our grandfather's country; and it was his father's, and his father's father's; and it was our mother's and, for that brief time-looking out the car windows at the sights along the way, at touristy Lake Lure and the rocky stream descending the grade in low waterfalls beside the road; at the forlorn houses surrounded by irregularly shaped fields planted with corn and beans; at the kudzu that devours more and more of the South, forest and field, every year-it was ours. I remember thinking that, after she died, there would be no one left to bind me to this part of the world, and I wondered what might cause me, in the future, ever to return.
At the house, we found our mother on the hospital bed in the living room. Beside the bed stood the enormous wooden table on which she had measured and scissored fabrics. Bolts of silk leaned in a corner. Bookshelves held paperbacks about Carl Jung and healing. The day nurse left Terry and me alone. Our mother was on her way to dying. She had informed us, earlier in the summer, that sometime before too long, probably before her birthday, in September, she would, as she had put it, "take matters into my own hands," but she had not told us exactly when; there were celestial and astrological considerations that needed factoring, and she was waiting for the right moment. Now the moment had come. Gazing at her emaciated face in the evening light, I discovered something that Terry had known and I hadn't, which was that our mother used dentures. Oh. These had been taken out. Her mouth was collapsed. She made noises and sounds that could not be interpreted as sentences, or even words. Morphine, dropped off earlier by the hospice workers, waited, sealed, in a bottle in the kitchen. No one, not even the nurse, seemed to know precisely when to begin feeding it to her. So, like the morphine in the bottle in the kitchen, we waited, and the next day my mother "woke"-as the dying sometimes will, briefly-and spoke relatively straightforwardly, if disjointedly, about her past. She called up names of people from Charlottesville and Kingsport and Miami, from Knoxville and Gainesville, Johnson City and Sarasota and Tallahassee. We felt her feet; her feet were warm. My sister gave her a sponge bath and changed her clothes, and we arranged the pillows beneath her head, and the nurse put her teeth in, and my mother asked us, in her broken voice, if we would mind, please, bringing her a Martini.
Playing the role of guardian, playing at being powerful, I asked if she thought a Martini a good idea, and she answered, quite sensibly, "What harm could it do now?"
Had there been gin and vermouth in the house, I would surely have mixed her a cocktail. Or maybe I wouldn't have. Did I offer her a taste of beer? I don't remember. Was she still taking oxygen? I can't remember that, either. Green tanks and plastic hoses were everywhere. The part-time nurse practitioner, a sweet and competent, though hardly medically knowledgeable, hard-line Christian fundamentalist, and my mother's two female friends, pagan Wiccans as far as I could make out, were in a battle over my mother's soul. It was a minor flare-up of social conflicts in the New South of the old Appalachias-the Christers versus the Shamans-staged over the proxy that was Louanne Antrim's wasted body. Back and forth it went, in whispered private conferences that I staged in the form of peace talks out in the yard:
"They're saying occult things. They're going to hand her over to the Devil. I've got three churches praying for your mom to rise into Jesus' arms."
"That Pentecostal girl's trying to convert Louanne to Christ. Your mother left organized religion behind a long time ago. It's not what she wants."
"Every time I pray for your mom, they come in and they stop me. I'm just worried sick over your mom."
In the end, it fell to me to administer the morphine. I should say that I decided, as the man on the scene, to be the one to give the morphine. Every four hours, I pressed a lorazepam tablet to powder in a spoon, introduced into this powder a small measure of the liquid morphine, drew the solution into an oral syringe, and squirted the drug into my mother's partly open mouth. I was careful to squirt toward the side of her mouth. My sister and I swabbed her lips with sponges, and on the third night her death rattle began. I put on Mozart piano sonatas, but after a while, getting into the spirit of things, I switched to Miles Davis, and afterward to one of my mother's god-awful Kitaro CDs, which, in that worldless non-time around three in the morning, I found myself enjoying. At some point before dawn, my mother's face relaxed and her skin cleared, and, though her throat and chest still rattled terribly, she smiled. It was a broad, unambiguous smile. Terry said to me, "Look, she's getting younger." It was true. In the hours before she died, Louanne began to resemble herself as the young woman we had seen in photographs taken before we were born-full of radiance and with her future and whatever crazed or credible hopes she had ahead of her. Amazingly, this effect occurred in spite of the absence of teeth. I sat in a chair beside the bed and read to her from "The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor," which she did not seem to appreciate at all-her smile vanished and she actually scowled at the opening to "A Wife of Nashville"-and, though I like Peter Taylor well enough, I felt in that instant real camaraderie with my mother. I left off reading and told her that she had been a good mother, a good artist; that Terry and I loved her and were grateful to her for her care; that those years in Tallahassee, in particular, had been pretty good years; that both of us, both her children, however much we might miss her, had a great deal to live for; that we would be all right without her. The sun came up. Terry drove back to the hotel for a shower and a nap. The New Agers and the kind Christian were away somewhere; and I held my mother's hand and told her that the house was empty except for the two of us, it was just her and me in the house, and it was a nice day outside the windows, birds were in trees, a breeze blew the leaves, clouds crossed the sky, and if she wanted she could go ahead and die, which she promptly did. She turned gray.
From 1966 until the summer of 1968, my sister and I lived with our mother in Tallahassee, Florida. Across the street from us was a church whose steeple had been removed and laid on its side to peel and rust in the yard beside the church. At the top of the street was a gas station where Apalachicola oysters could be bought for five dollars a bushel. Our father was teaching in Virginia; though our parents' first divorce was either final or on the way to being so, he visited monthly, pulling up in his black Volkswagen Beetle, parking in the driveway made of seashells and sand-the cue for Terry and me to rush from the house screaming with excitement. Often, the first evening of his visit we would spend as a family, sitting on the concrete-and-brick porch, shucking and eating dozens of oysters and looking out at the church with its decapitated, useless steeple. My sister and I conspire to remember these as good years, primarily because there was sparingly little head-to-head conflict between our parents, given that they were infrequently together; but also because the three of us, Terry, my mother, and I, became a family of our own, a family that existed in the absence of the family we wished we could be. Terry and I did fine in school; we rode our bikes, built forts using lawn furniture, played with friends from across the street. I joined the Cub Scouts; she was a Brownie. Occasionally, our mother allowed us to stay home from school, and our party of three became a tea party in the living room. There was something approaching normalcy in our lives. In retrospect, I would say that it was a forced normalcy. Our happy family was a worrisomely happy performance of family.
This idea calls to mind a particular event. When I was nine, I got to play the part of Young Macduff in the Florida State University production of "Macbeth." My mother worked as an assistant costumer in the theatre department. It was she who would eventually make my costume, a yellow-orange tunic with a sash for a belt. The tunic, despite repeated washing, became bloodier and bloodier with each new performance. Here are some lines from Act IV, Scene 2, spoken by Lady Macduff and her son, before they are murdered by Macbeth's henchmen:
L. MACD.: Sirrah, your father's dead, And what will you do now? How will you live? SON: As birds do, mother. L. MACD.: What, with worms and flies? SON: With what I get, I mean, and so do they. L. MACD.: Poor bird, thou'dst never fear the net nor lime, The pitfall nor the gin. SON: Why should I, mother? Poor birds they are not set for. My father is not dead, for all your saying. L. MACD.: Yes, he is dead. How wilt thou do for a father? SON: Nay, how will you do for a husband?
SON: Was my father a traitor, mother? L. MACD.: Ay, that he was. SON: What is a traitor? L. MACD.: Why, one that swears and lies. SON: And be all traitors that do so? L. MACD.: Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hang'd.
It is but a moment before the killers enter. The stage instructions call for Young Macduff to be murdered first, crying out, "He has kill'd me, mother: Run away, I pray you!" and for her to flee into the wings, crying "Murther!" In our production, both deaths occurred onstage. First I went down, stabbed in the back and in the stomach. My pretend mother ran to my side and knelt beside me. Then she was killed. She fell across me and lay dead (though breathing heavily). It was in this way that I came to fall in love with Lady Macduff. I mean that I fell in love with Janice, the college girl playing Lady Macduff. The lights dimmed to end the scene. Each night, I watched from beneath my mother who was not my mother, as the lights' filaments faded; and, when the stage fell dark, I whispered in Janice's ear, which was practically in my mouth, "O.K., get up," because the smell of her, and her hair falling across my face, and her ear in my mouth, and the pressure and heat of her body pressing down onto mine, became too intense to bear.
It seems to me that some of the archetypes for my adult life were introduced during the period of the play: the man who appears and withdraws, appears and withdraws; the woman who is both my mother and a girl on whom I have a crush; and the real mother, who dies for want of the love and protection of a man, her husband. These are rudimentary formulations; nevertheless, they point to a fact of large consequence, the fact of my precarious victory over my father and my attainment of my mother. Like Young Macduff in the moments before death, I became my mother's confidant. In doing so, I became her true husband, the man both like and unlike other men. And, in becoming these things, I became sick.
The main ailment was a debilitating asthma that required trips to hospitals and doctors' offices. I swallowed drugs that kept me awake nights, struggling to breathe mist from an atomizer that hummed away on the table next to my bed, while my mother sat at my bedside. She had a way of sitting beside me on the bed-at a certain angle, leaning over, maybe touching my forehead or holding my hand, perched the way mothers everywhere perch on beds beside sick children-that I will never forget. It was our intimacy. In later years, after she and my father had overturned their divorce and disastrously remarried, and her alcoholic deterioration had begun in earnest, the image of her in the Tallahassee days, serving tea in china cups, or sitting up nights with me on the edge of my bed in the little house on Eighth Street, would be supplanted by the more violent image of the increasingly damaged Lady Macbeth she was to become. When we say about something or someone that we are dying for that thing, that person, we may miss the more literal meaning hidden in the metaphor. I was a boy dying for his mother, angrily, stubbornly doing her work of dying, the work she had begun before I was born. In this version of the story of my illness-the story of our collusion in illness-I was not merely bringing my mother to my bedside, not simply bringing her close. Rather, I was marrying myself to her, learning to speak the language of her unconscious, which, as time would bear out, was a language of suffocation and death. In sickness, we were joined. She was me and I was her. This is how I come to respect the difficulties of her childhood with her own mother-not from doctors' opinions or from family confidences about ambiguous surgical operations but from my own childhood experience of my mother at my bedside, holding my hand, leaning close, needing me to need her beside me, loving me in the only way she knew how to love, which was in sickness not in health, her sickness and mine, ours.
I bought the Dux. Of course, I bought top of the line. If you're going to buy a brand-new rest of your life, why go halfway? The guys who brought it in and set it up were not only deliverymen; they were true believers, real aficionados. One of the men was large, the other less large. The large man did the talking.
"This is the bed I sleep on."
"Best bed I ever slept on. I've slept on every kind of bed. Take a look at me. I'm a big guy. Most beds, I'd get two, three years and the things wear out. Not this bed."
"I'm telling you. I sleep on this bed. My mother sleeps on this bed. My sister has one of these beds. My mother's sister sleeps on this bed."
"Sleep like a baby."
Like a baby? What if I wanted to sleep like a man? It didn't much matter either way, because I wasn't going to get any sleep at all. Not that night. Not the following night. Not the night after that.
"Hey, come over. I got the bed."
"Yeah. It's here."
"I can't believe you got the bed."
"I got the bed. It's here."
"Have you gotten on it?"
"Have you put the sheets on it?"
"Is my pillow on it?"
"Is it as tall as the other bed?"
"You got the bed!"
"I got the bed!"
Talk about up all night-however, not for reasons one would anticipate or wish. It was a bad night on many counts. In the first place, the bed felt too soft. In the second place, it was too springy. In the third place, it seemed too transmissive of vibrations caused by movement. In the fourth place, it was too final. It represented the end of the quest for itself. The search for the bed had always been a grief-abatement project-it was never meant (though how could I have known this?) to end in a purchase. But, now, here the bed was. It was mine. It would be the place not of love and rest but of deprivation and loneliness. All during that first night, I lay awake and felt the bed. I felt myself sinking into it. I felt, sinking into the bed, the absence of familiar pressures against my shoulders and hips; and, without those familiar pressures, I felt adrift. If R. moved even an inch, I felt that. If she turned over, the effect was catastrophic. In the morning I was wrung out, and so was R.
What followed over the next few days was a workshop in hysteria. I called the store. I phoned other stores, in other states. I wanted to know from the Dux community what I could do to join, to make myself on my bed feel the way they said they felt on theirs. Pamela, the manager of the store on East Fifty-eighth Street, lost patience eventually and told me that she would take the bed back-immediately! Against company policy! She'd make an exception in my case! Though not for a full refund! Did I want the bed? Did I want the bed or not? Alone at night, I sank into the bed and tried to want it. And the further I sank into the bed the closer I came to knowing what the bed was. It was the last bed I would ever buy. It was the bed that would deliver me into my fate. It was the bed that would marry me again to my mother, the bed Louanne and I would share. When I moved, the bed moved, talking back to me through the echoing of coiled springs, telling me that there would be no rest for me. The bed was alive. It was alive with my mother. I sank into the bed, and it was as if I were sinking down into her arms. She was not beside me on the bed, she was inside the bed, and I was inside the bed; and she pulled me down into the bed to die with her. It was my deathbed. It was a coffin. It was a sarcophagus. I didn't want to die. Did I? If only I could get the bed to stay still. Why wouldn't the bed leave me alone? Why wouldn't the bed be my bed?
In the daytime I worked the phones. A woman in a Southern state referred me to a man in the same Southern state who had sold these beds for twenty years. This man knew everything about the beds.
"What kind of floor is your bed on? Is it a wood floor?"
"Yes, it is a wood floor."
"There's your problem."
"How do you mean?"
"Sometimes on a wood floor these beds can be very reverberant. Do you have carpet under the bed?"
"You need carpet under the bed. That'll damp the springs."
"I don't have any carpet."
"Go out and get yourself a set of those felt-and-rubber furniture coasters. You'll need six, because on a queen-size bed there are those extra legs supporting the middle of the bed."
Coasters? It was too late for coasters. The bed had to go back to the warehouse! It had to go back the next morning! The large man and the less large man were coming to haul away the bed that I both wanted and did not want, that I both needed and did not need in order to continue being the man who was both better and worse than other men. I ran out, with minutes before the stores closed, bought the coasters, ran back home, and shoved them under the legs of the bed. I bounced on the bed. I hadn't slept in days. Nights. And on and on the night went: My mother. The bed. My mother. The bed. Morphine. The bed. I'd failed her by living. I'd killed her with negligence. Comfort was forbidden. Except in death. In the morning, the men were coming to cart away our bed. I pulled up the covers and sank into the bed and drifted restlessly in that half-awake dream world where I could live and die with and without my dead mother, and I waited for the men.
Then it was morning and the light through the windows was hurting my eyes and I had a cigarette of my own going, and the buzzer rang and they tromped up the stairs and began packing the bed. They took off the legs and broke it down and wrapped it up, and just like that the bedroom was empty, and my mind without sleep was suddenly empty, too.
"This isn't right!"
"What's not right?"
"Everything! All of it!"
I told them the story of the bouncy, springy bed. All that sleeplessness. All those phone calls. The store managers, the furniture coasters. It all poured out. Not about my mother, though. Nothing about Louanne. The men stood in my empty bedroom, listening, paying attention. The large man, who had, I think, a firm grasp of reality, said, "I see that there is a problem. But I have to tell you, I'm just the driver."
I went to the telephone. I called the number for the Swedish president of Dux Interiors in North America. What in the world was I going to say to him? What did I want from him?
"Hello. Is this Mr. Gustafsson?"
"Hi. My name is Donald. I'm a customer? I have a bed that's being picked up and returned."
"You don't like the bed?"
"I like the bed. I like the bed. It's just that there are problems."
The large man stepped forward. He took control. He said to me, "Let me talk to Bo."
I gave the large man the phone. He stood in my ravaged, empty bedroom and did the talking. He talked for a long time. When he was finished speaking with the president, he passed me my phone. He told me, "Bo wants to talk to you."
"Hello. Is it Donald? Hello. Let me ask you something. What size bed do you have?"
"Ah. And you say it is too bouncy?"
"That's part of it."
"Reverberant. How do you mean?"
"I mean you can feel everything. When you're on the bed. When you're in bed. You feel too much. I feel too much."
"Well. I don't know what to tell you. There are many springs in that bed. That is how it works. All the springs work together. There is going to be some movement. Maybe to get a good night's rest you need your own sleeping area. Maybe you need the king."
"I don't have room for a king."
"I don't know what to tell you. You have to decide if you want to keep the bed or not. I cannot decide for you."
"The bed is a good bed. I am sure that if you keep it you will get used to it. These beds take some getting used to."
I hung up the phone. I saw the men standing in my house. I saw the crated bed by the door. I saw the sunlight coming through the windows. I saw myself standing there seeing these things. I was a man whose need for love and sympathy had led him to telephone a Swede in the middle of the morning. Perhaps at this point the story of my mother and the bed becomes the story of my father and the bed, the story that remains to be told, the story, you could say, of the king versus the queen.
The bed went away. I let it go. R. was right. I could get another bed later. I stood in my empty room. In place of the bed was-shame? In place of the bed was a question, a question that is at once too simple and too complicated to answer.