My mother met Daniel just before dawn on the morning she was to be evicted from her apartment across from the El Cortez in downtown San Diego. She was loading her van with belongings, hurrying to be on the road before the seven a.m. visit from the sheriff. Trying to be discreet, she worked in the dark, and since her apartment was up a flight of stairs, she had trouble handling the heavy furniture by herself. Something awkward, a bookcase or an easy chair, slipped from her hands and crashed down to the street just as Daniel and a friend of his, a sailor, happened to be walking by.
Daniel would never pass up a person who needed help, especially a pretty woman like my mother. He and his friend decided to give her a hand. They quietly loaded the rest of her furniture, save one mattress, into the van, and in exchange for their help, my mother, who of course had no money to give them, had sex with both of them on the mattress. Afterwards, Daniel and the sailor argued. The sailor wanted to leave; Daniel wanted him to give a hand carrying the mattress to the van. The sailor relented, and the two of them took it away while my mother sat on the toilet and cried.
When she came out of her apartment for the last time, she taped a little note on the door for the landlord, put the key back through the mail slot, and found her way down the stairs. Daniel was waiting for her by the van, alone.
I can’t imagine what they said to each other. She was embarrassed to be so desperate, and she was probably also grateful that her circumstances didn’t faze him. The sun was rising by now, and Daniel asked her where she was going. That they both had nowhere to go at dawn must have seemed romantic to them. They probably felt like they were Gypsies.
They drove the van just a block, to a Denny’s at Ninth and Ash, where my mother ordered tea. Daniel, however, told the waitress they’d both have full breakfasts, sausages, hash browns, the works. My mother worried, but Daniel just laughed and for the first time told her, Baby, with me, every day is Christmas. He pulled a twenty from his money belt. It was his last twenty, but Daniel explained that so far, he’d been down to his last twenty a number of times in his life, and every time, God had provided for him.
While they ate, they probably got their first good looks at each other. Daniel, my mother would say later, could walk with kings or paupers with equal ease. He looked much like the actor Richard Gere, only a bit plumper and with blackened teeth. My mother, blond, fair, blue eyed, was once mistaken in a Beverly Hills restaurant for the actress Linda Evans. Maybe my mother and Daniel talked about what famous people they looked like. At that point, she was still sure he was just a character she would later wonder what had happened to.
After breakfast, however, they went to the van in the parking lot and climbed in. Together.
They looked at each other. My mother was 51. Daniel was 27. Daniel said he’d heard there were jobs in Las Vegas. My mother was shocked — could people just leave one city for another like that? Daniel laughed. How else, he said, do you expect to find adventure? So they decided to drive to Las Vegas.
On their way out of town, they made one stop in a seedy area near the Gaslamp Quarter. My mother sat in the driver’s seat, double-parked and idling, while Daniel bought a bag of crystal meth. He said it would help him stay awake while they were driving. My mother said it was okay with her, as long as he was careful. And so they drove out of the city together, my mother feeling safe and free and Daniel whistling happy songs, high on speed, tapping the dashboard and singing, and I imagine both of them knew, even though they’d only been together for hours, that they would never be apart.
This fact shocks me: I don’t know if I love my mother. What I feel is a Gordian knot of safety mechanisms, reflexive withdrawal and emptiness when she seeks my approval. For ten years, I lived in Oakland, waiting for the middle-of-the-night phone call from a sheriffs department in San Diego or Placer County or Nevada or Oregon telling me that Daniel had finally beaten her to death. I used to think about that phone call, imagining my guilt, relief, abandonment, anger, because then I would know how I felt about her.
The phone call never came. This story is what happened instead. Because I know now how it ends, I can tell you this much: this is one of the bleakest stories I know about the mysterious, redemptive power of love.
Some facts: my mother was born in 1935 in London, out of wedlock, to a schizophrenic alcoholic mother and a German father. She married an American GI in 1954 and came to California. They divorced in 1961. She married my father in 1963. I was born in 1964. Their marriage ended in 1974. My mother got a settlement of about $800,000, which, by investment in business ventures, she managed to lose completely within seven years.
When I was 17, when the money was almost gone, my mother got stoned one night and wrote 20 pages of her life story. It was in first person, but it was told from my point of view. She called it “My Mother’s Lovers and Other Reasons I’m School Valedictorian” and set it in San Francisco, where she started dating again after my parents divorced. She cast me as a world-weary teenager with a critical eye for his mother’s second adolescence, who sees her lovers as a series of “characters,” some dismal, some exciting and fun. When she read it to me, I felt the same queasiness I did when she once, also stoned, started describing an article she’d read about how mother-son incest taboos were different from culture to culture and there were some tribes where it was part of the growing-up process.
In her story, she gives her lovers nicknames to make fun of them: the Carpenter, the Italian Professor, the Jewish Psychotherapist. Finally she meets a man who, because he is so special, sidesteps the nickname stage, and they fall in love.
In real life, the first man I was aware of my mother dating was a boy, Stephano, about 24, who spent the night and left early the next morning. My mother didn’t know where he was until the police called. He’d been caught trying to pawn some of her jewelry. My mother cried for hours. When I asked what was wrong, she told me her money had intimidated him. “I wish he knew he could have just asked me for the money.” Then she bailed him out.
There followed a series of men who had many things in common: they had all once been successful and were still handsome but had fallen on hard times. They talked a good game. If only the, IRS would get off their backs; if only their business partner weren’t so unreasonable; if only the judge in the lawsuit hadn’t been corrupt. My mother lent them money to get them back on their feet, and when she had lost all of her $800,000, she sold the property set aside for my education and used it for her last rich boyfriend, who had a terrible cocaine problem. He, like many of the others, was married.
I hated these men. When I was 14, I made my mother cry when I suggested that she “check out her Prince Charmings more carefully.” My mother said I was unfair and that I didn’t want her to be with anyone other than my father, “a control freak.”
Soon after she lost all of her money, and all of my money, she told me that she was now ready for money to come to her, that now she was ready to handle the responsibility of great wealth.
It’s not that she lacks common sense. She had experience and ability in finance. She grew up in a boarding house, and since her mother was in and out of institutions, she handled the accounts herself starting when she was seven years old. And when she was married to my father, she managed his company’s money. My mother understood money.
She has so much going for her. My mother has a wonderful sense of humor, tells great stories, laughs often, and makes friends quickly. Learning that there was more to her life than a run of bad luck took me most of my life to understand. I think it was the boyfriend — one who had Mexican gang tattoos on his neck — who she believed was a deposed Samoan prince that finally made me wonder what was going on.
Her friends, her family, my father point at her schizophrenic mother. Or her distant father, who wanted a son, who made it clear he disapproved of daughters by speaking to my mother only in French, a language she barely understood. Or her guilt at being born out of wedlock, at being the bait her mother used to get her father to finally marry her (“Our Little One needs a last name…). Or being date raped when she was 40.
I wondered for a while if it was the loss of her identical twin. My mother was one of a set of twins; no one knows what happened to her sister, who disappeared shortly after birth.
I guess it’s everything. I guess at a certain point, I stopped asking why and started asking how I would cope with her.
When I was 22 and living in Berkeley, my mother called to ask to borrow a hundred dollars, which I gave her, and she said, “I know you must hate me.” I said I didn’t. But I asked her why she had made such “odd choices.” I called them “odd” because I remembered her friend Rose asking, gently, over dinner, if she’d looked into getting a job instead of trying, again, to fund a boyfriend’s legal defense. Over dinner, my mother had simply smiled, her eyes hardening, and then, later, when it was just the two of us in her car, my mother had burst into tears, whacking at the steering wheel, yelling, “She thinks she can control my life! I borrow a crummy $400 from someone and she thinks she can tell me what to do with it!”
When I finally asked my mother about her odd choices, she answered me, slowly, precisely, as if she’d been waiting until I was old enough to understand. And, though I wrote it down, I can’t tell you what she said, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s long and serpentine, with references to low self-esteem, to her father, to getting herpes, to needing to find disreputable men ever since then because she felt they were the only ones she deserved. And then: her family’s lack of support; never really having had a chance to be rich; events conspired against her; then how she’d be able to set up her own business if only she had one more investor. She made it all sound like she was in a small boat in the middle of the ocean, no compass, broken mast, torn sails, spun by currents and winds she couldn’t control.
She was obsessed with starting a service that would do photocopying, résumés, and other print work. Her motto was “When you wish one call would do it all..She leased machines and computers with the last of her money, or my money, but because she always chose terrible locations (a second-floor office in New York; her apartments in Long Beach and Encinitas; a storefront in the otherwise abandoned El Cortez) and her equipment never performed the way she’d hoped, she had little repeat business.
She was optimistic, telling me about potential clients, contracts just about to be signed. Even when she was having her photocopier repossessed, or when she was getting evicted, she saw the big change up ahead. “It’s so ironic,” she would say, “just when things were looking up, the bank refused to give me a loan.”
A couple of months after she borrowed the hundred dollars, I paid her my last unannounced visit. Though I’d always been cynical about the possibilities of romance (my upbringing suggested that love was a delusion, at best a mutual delusion), I was deeply in love for the first time in my life. I thought anything was possible. I had come to San Diego to share this feeling with my mom. It would be a surprise visit.
My mother lived across from the illegal alien detention center, not far from the apartment she’d once been evicted from. She had been unable to pay the rent on the El Cortez storefront, so she’d moved her equipment into her apartment. When I knocked on her door, there was no answer at first. I knocked again, and my mother appeared.
She didn’t recognize me. She had an expression on her face that I couldn’t place. In retrospect, I realize she had been frightened for a very long time and was unsure whether she would make it much longer. She was holding a kitchen knife in one hand and a paper towel around her fingers, which she had just accidentally cut.
Suddenly, she hugged me in a burst of relief I didn’t understand, and then she pulled away. She looked ashamed. She later said her first thought was, “I guess I could let this one in. He looks okay.”
But when I came into her apartment, she clearly didn’t want me there. The room was filled with sailors. My mother didn’t refer to them; it was as if they were furniture. A couple of cots and air mattresses were pushed to the walls, which were bare. In the kitchen, there was a huge pot of water boiling on the stove and economy-sized bags of buns. I had walked in just as my mother had cut herself making hot dogs for sailors.
I don’t know how long I was in the apartment; it was probably only a few seconds. I recall a young black man in sailor bell-bottoms, with ginger hair and blotches of bright pink skin eating away his natural skin color. He was standing by a window, languid, smoking a cigarette. He watched me.
My mother guided me out the back door. I tried to explain why I was there, but she couldn’t absorb it. She had a hearing problem that grew acute when she was under stress. She said it was a good thing I’d come down, taking me to her garage and trying to unlock it, fumbling with the keys and trying to keep her fingers from bleeding. She said over and over she was glad I was here, she had things she meant to give me.
As I tried to talk to her, she was pulling out boxes and filling up shopping bags with old letters. Photographs. My baby clothes. But she was looking for something else.
A few months before, I’d sent her a book, a rare first edition of Barbara Hutton’s biography, which had been withdrawn from circulation. The book was called Poor Little Rich Girl but my mother couldn’t remember the title right. She thought it was called Little Gloria, Happy at Last. I said, “No, Mom, it’s Poor Little Rich Girl” but she continued to sort through the boxes, looking for the book, unable to find it, muttering under her breath “Happy at Last, Happy at Last, Happy at Last”
When I left, I had five full shopping bags. I sorted out what my mother had given me: every photograph she had of me, every photo of her own life, all the letters and cards she’d kept from her family. I knew that my mother was in such danger that she had to make sure someone had all the things she treasured. I wrote in my journal, “My mom is going to die.”
But no, it wasn’t that simple. Though I have no memory of him that day, Daniel was already in her life. I’ll never know what happened between them on a daily basis. My mother lied to me; I don’t know how much. In October 1988, she and Daniel were living near the Rogue River in Oregon in a converted school bus. They had a black-and-white kitten named Misty. “She’s just like a baby,” my mom said. “She brings us trophies—her hunting instinct, you know — but because there aren’t any mice, and she’s so small anyway, she brings us broccoli spears.” Their school bus was infested with crickets, and Misty would eat them, or pizza, or toast and jam. For months, my mother talked about Misty like she was evidence that Daniel was not a monster. He had a kitten, and he loved it.
But during a terrible argument, my mother told Daniel she was leaving him. Daniel strangled Misty. My mother stayed.
That’s how she told the story the first time, when she had fled Daniel and was living with me. But seven years later, she referred to Misty as “the kitten we had to leave behind in Las Vegas.” Maybe she left it behind because it was dead, but I think she was retelling it as if Daniel hadn’t killed it, rewriting history to soften Daniel’s edges. Or maybe Daniel did not in fact kill it, but she told it that way at first because such a story would justify her leaving him. Or maybe, or maybe...I’m 32 years old, I have played this game with my mother’s motivations long enough.
I think Daniel strangled that cat.
My first strong impression of him was when he and my mother visited me and my girlfriend, Lee Ann, in Oakland. It was the only time I allowed Daniel to stay in my house. He sweated, talked incessantly and rudely, and my mother kept stroking his arms and rubbing his neck to soothe him. After they left, Lee Ann discovered someone had eaten the entire box of chocolate Cadbury eggs I’d gotten her for Valentine’s Day. Lee Ann, who loved chocolate, could eat perhaps one egg a day. During the evening at our house, Daniel had eaten about a dozen of them.
Daniel was a junkie. I told my mother he was no longer welcome at my house.
Years later, after Mom had left Daniel for the second or third time and she was in a battered women’s shelter, she was required to see a therapist. She told her therapist one of her main problems was that I didn’t like Daniel. The therapist asked what was at the root of that. My mother said, “Glen doesn’t like Daniel because he ate some Valentine’s candy.”
The rhetorician in me, the one that wants to pin my mother’s wings to the page above a Latinate appellation, could just end that story here. It actually continues. The therapist said, “If I were your son, I’d hate Daniel too.” My mother told me this story to show how the therapist was against her. This was why she finally left the shelter and returned to Daniel.
I have to admit an artistic problem. To present a fully realized account, I must show sympathy for Daniel. I should talk about his bad childhood (he was unloved) and adolescence (abused, homeless, sent to jail, raped repeatedly). I should talk about the good things he did for my mother, and he did do one impressive thing: he helped her set up a successful business buying and selling secondhand goods.
But this approach would feel like a three-dollar bill sticking out of the register drawer. I don’t want to present a rounded portrait of him. I believe that Daniel, dealt a bad hand by God, was the most evil motherfucker I’ve ever met.
Daniel wanted to kill me. He repeatedly told my mother, whom he called “you fucking bitch,” that if she didn’t obey him, I was a dead man. He was a compulsive gambler at bingo and the state lottery, using my mother’s money, then his, then his SSI checks to buy 50 Scratches at a time. Avoiding taxes, he wrote my social security number on job applications.
My mother always wanted to be a writer. I once thought she would write a wonderful book about her life. Her relationship with Daniel amazed me because, in addition to everything else, he was illiterate. He could just barely sign his name. He didn’t see the use in books, except the Bible, and he didn’t need to read that because he knew in his heart what was in it.
She taught him to read and write. The first thing he wrote was a note proposing to her. Though she never married him, she had the note laminated and carried it around in her purse. It contained Daniel’s favorite phrase: “Love is the Answer.”
The hardest part of the relationship for me to acknowledge was the most obvious: they were the right ages to be mother and son. Daniel’s own mother had kicked him out of the house. My mother frequently tells me how, when I was four years old, she had tried to add up a column of numbers, and I had added it up faster. Apparently I then said, “Mommy’s brain is slow.” I don’t remember saying this, but my mother always ends the story with “You always were a real putdown artist.”
I think she’s wrong about me, but I think that fiction suits her need to float alone in the wreckage, counting sharks. And, if Daniel found a mother in my mother, then she finally found a son who really would put her down.
For almost a decade, my notebooks barely mention my mother, except occasionally to record some new insane plan she had for making money (she was like a deer in the headlights when multilevel marketing schemes found her; wanting me to “get in on the deal,” she frequently sent me ads from the backs of magazines promising a thousand dollars a week, part-time, working out of home) or to tell a brief story (“Mom left Daniel again” or “Mom is back with Daniel again”) that I didn’t want to get into.
Daniel and my mother lived in and around Las Vegas, in Oregon, in San Diego, and near Sacramento. Mom had a knack for finding office jobs with abusive bosses and explained to me that she was staying each time because she hoped that if she were nice enough, her boss would eventually have to be nice back. One stole her paycheck; another set up an investment pool that turned out to be a pyramid scheme; yet another was a physician who made her babysit a girl he’d gotten pregnant and performed an abortion on. At night, my mother would try her hand at telemarketing, which stunned me since she was mostly deaf.
Daniel would get a job catering or cooking at restaurants until his drug habit got him fired and he would get another job, or they would leave town and try their luck elsewhere. Sometimes my mother would break away from Daniel and live with a friend or go to a battered women’s shelter, but she would always end up back with him, and then would call me to say that everything was finally going well, that I could come visit any time I wanted, they had a bed or a cot or a sleeping bag for me.
In 1991, they were living in a cabin near the Sierra foothills. Daniel’s drug use had gotten out of hand. He was violent and he was stealing money from her. The details are sketchy, but he seems to have had a complete break with reality and, isolated in that cabin, finally tried to kill her. She called the police and Daniel pulled a knife on them.
My mother called me late at night, frantic, telling me the story in full—she always seemed to tell me everything — and I was lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling as my mother talked, and I was detached, trying to treat this like a soap opera update and hoping the story would end with the cops killing him.
Unfortunately, the cops showed restraint, disarming Daniel and sending him to a mental hospital. My mother moved into a shelter, took a job assembling TV dinner trays, and lived with a woman whose children were trying to have her declared incompetent so they would inherit her share of their father’s will.
The chronology here, never easy to follow, tangles to impenetrability. Daniel left the hospital, somehow located the women’s shelter (I think my mother told him where it was), and they reunited, then split again. He went on a drug binge.
Somehow, they overcame this separation, she took him back, he promised to give up drugs, he returned to the hospital, where he was put on medication and complete disability, meaning SSI kicked in. The government would pay Daniel $600 a month, plus all of his medical bills.
During a physical, the doctors discovered that Daniel was HIV positive.
Before the diagnosis of Daniel’s HIV status, there had been a pattern to my phone conversations with Mom: in one, I would tell her that I wouldn’t come up because Daniel was a drug addict and because he was dangerous. She would ask me what was really going on, saying there had to be something more than that, that I resented Daniel for something else. Then she would finally respect my decision, even if she didn’t understand it. In our next conversation, she would ask me to come up again, hinting that the wild-flowers were in bloom, or the back roads were perfect for me to ride my motorcycle, or I just had to see the farmers’ market. Sometimes I would make excuses, sometimes I actually was busy, sometimes I would ask my mom if she remembered when I’d said I wasn’t coming as long as she was with Daniel. And she was always hurt by that.
After Daniel was released from the hospital and they moved in together for the final time, my mother’s tactics changed. In every conversation (she called me about twice a month; I rarely called her) she dropped broad hints about how much Daniel had changed since he’d given up the crystal meth. He was motivated, he worked hard, she no longer had to hide her purse from him. What she was actually saying: these were his final days and she saw a dreamy sunset in which everyone would finally be friends.
They had a setup that actually sounded as, if it suited them well. My mother had taken a job managing a ministorage just off the freeway. Daniel was wheeling and dealing at the local swap meet. They took over the lien sales held when ministorage customers failed to pay their bills. Daniel was a born auctioneer, and the townspeople loved talking to my mother, whose faint British accent lent the operation a touch of class.
They opened a secondhand shop stocked with items they bought from the ministorage sales or from local estates. They lived in a small trailer that was cluttered and cozy and that had a garden in back where they’d planted tomatoes. Daniel bought and sold furniture, fixed up the house, worked in the garden, played bingo twice a week at a local church, and had started collecting interesting rocks that he found on his long walks in the countryside. My mother bought him modeling paints, and Daniel painted funny faces on the ones with the most evocative shapes. So, on my 30th birthday, I received two rocks: one painted like a wolf, the other like a medicine man.
I also received an audiotape called “Missy Sings Happy Birthday.” Daniel had rescued from the pound a shaggy, squat orange dog the size and shape of a Butterball turkey. They knew nothing about her former owners but noticed that whenever they rustled open a newspaper, Missy tried to hide.
This animal is the only creature who ever loved Daniel and who was loved in return, fully and unconditionally. Missy tolerated my mother, barked at everyone else, and focused her complete attention on Daniel. He fed her meat from his plate, fussed over her, and was never seen in town without Missy by his side. After dinner every night, Daniel said, “Missy, where’s your dolly?” And Missy would bring him a doll, and they would play catch. Daniel loved to sing, and when Missy heard him singing, she tried to sing along. Hence the birthday tape.
It took more than a year, but finally my mother’s campaign worked. In summer of 1994, I drove to their house. They showed me their setup like I was a parent who’d just arrived for homecoming. Here was their ministorage, here was a typical unit, and then a tour of the trailer, and here was the garden I’d heard so much about, here was a bunch of books she thought I might like.
My mother introduced me to her boss, who told me what a fine person my mother was. And she introduced me to the firemen, the owners of the deli, the bookstore, the antique store. And when people drove by in their pickup trucks, she waved them down to introduce them to me, her son, Glen, the writer. And they’d all already heard about me.
Daniel and I had some obviously staged man-to-man time. He told me how happy my mother looked when I was around. He talked about how the cure for AIDS was coming. He showed me the lottery ticket that he’d bought that said “spin-spin-spin,” meaning he’d get to be on TV and might get a chance at millions. “If anyone’s gonna win the Big Spin, it’s me. I’ve got that kind of luck.” He was chatty, but not in his old drugged, hostile way. He still rushed through words and sentences and paragraphs in a monotone, slurring through things in order to get to punch lines about what good deals he’d gotten, how much he loved my mother, how he liked finally being straight. I can’t claim that I suddenly liked him, but I could at least see him as human.
He told me how the doctors had diagnosed him as bipolar and put him on antipsychotics. “All that speed, that was just me trying to self-medicate. The first time I took what the doctor gave me, I could understand people for the first time, like everything in my brain slowed down enough to make sense.”
And then my mom found us again and showed me all the unusual things Daniel had brought home, furniture, paintings, clothing, and she told me about all the generous things he’d done around town. A couple of times, Daniel said, “I keep telling her, ‘Babe, every day with me is Christmas.’ I told her that when we first met, and she didn’t believe me.”
I gave him a tiny geode I’d bought for his rock collection. He looked at it with interest, then tossed it over his shoulder. “Yeah,” he said, “thanks, but I don’t collect those anymore.”
The next day, my mother wanted to go for a nice drive in the countryside. We were parched and had to stop for drinks every hour or so at gas stations, where Daniel would also buy a fistful of lottery tickets. Daniel wanted to pan for gold. As we drove along the country roads, my mother in the driver’s seat (Daniel’s driver’s license had been taken away), Daniel turned back to tell me his stories of friends who’d struck it rich. He knew, to the ounce, the weight of the major nuggets dug out of the hills, and as he continued to talk, I stopped being able to follow what he was saying.
My mother had been maintaining a fiction for months: that Daniel, off drugs, was a different person than Daniel on drugs. And so I had been cutting him more and more slack, trying to make him into a nice guy, a productive member of society. But as he had launched into endless digressions about his gambling, about gold panning, about striking it rich, I was feeling the effort of pretending he’d become normal.
Suddenly, Daniel was focusing his flat brown eyes at me, and it was as if someone had adjusted the knob on a radio, and the signal was coming in clear: he was mad. “You have this way of staring at people. It makes ’em look stupid.”
This hung in the air. I couldn’t remember what he’d been saying before. My mother drove. I didn’t dare break eye contact with Daniel.
“It’s like you’re trying to intimidate people, like you think you’re smarter than them. You make people feel stupid.”
I tried to ignore how his fists were balled on the backrest, to not think about all the times Daniel had beaten guys up or been beaten up himself. Daniel laid into me until something caught his attention—another gas station with lottery tickets, a place to pan for gold, something, and he forgot about me.
An hour later, we were walking on the banks of a broad, flat river. Chest-high weeds, burnt brown, were on either side of the path, and insects made a distant humming sound like electricity. Daniel was telling the funniest joke he knew. It was about an elderly black couple packing for their second honeymoon, and Daniel did all the voices, in all octaves from deep bass sharecropper to high, shrieking pickaninny. The joke ended, arid Daniel laughed and said, “You’re working on a screenplay?”
“I’ve got a screenplay idea for you.”
My mother lodged a feeble protest. She knew what was coming. If she has seemed absent, I’ve captured it just right. Weeks later, when I told her I wasn’t coming back again, I said, “Daniel is dangerous; Mom. I was sure he was going to hit me when he said I made him feel stupid.”
“He was just feeling threatened.”
“And he’s still a religious fanatic.”
“What do you mean?”
“When he talked about hell?” She had been there — she had tried to stop him.
She said, “I don’t remember that.”
We were pushing through the weeds, heading back to the car, when Daniel told me that the greatest screenplay ever would be about an angel who blows one note on a trumpet, and it knocks down a house. Just one note, so loud, it makes all the houses of the world cave in. It’s Gabriel’s trumpet, and it means the end of the world is coming and Jesus will return to the earth, and all the sinners will go to hell, and paradise will come. Revelation was Daniel’s favorite book of the Bible.
Daniel said he’d fasted back when he was a tour guide at the Grand Canyon. He’d fasted to have religious experiences, and he had fasted so long, he had seen hell. “I saw the lake of fire. I saw hell, I really did. It wasn’t just a vision, it was the truth. God showed it to me. You know what they have in hell? I saw it; in one place, there’s one guy just punching another guy in the face over and over again —” he smashed one fist into his open palm, bam bam bam “— just beating him for all of eternity. And that’s not the worst part of it.”
There was no way to stop his description; clearly, he was too excited, he was on a topic he knew more about than we did, and with the weeds so tall, the day so hot, the smell of Daniel’s cigarette, I had a feeling of claustrophobia as he continued. “The worst part is for perverts. I saw it. There’s a place God showed me for the perverts, where one guy buttfucks another guy —” and here he put his hands out as if gripping a saddle, and he thrust his hips back and forth “ —for eternity. One guy buttfucking another forever, for all of eternity.”
A couple of hours later, in the late afternoon, we were back at the ministorage. Daniel’s mood had darkened since the drive. He chain-smoked, every gesture of his cigarette pointed and angry. He was telling me the same stories for the second, or third, or fourth time, but he seemed to be squinting more while he talked, eyes searching my face, as if he felt I had taken stock of all that he said, and all that he was, and found it lacking. He talked as if his trotting out everything he knew, his best qualities, his best stories, could make me see the real him, the one that was worthwhile, if only I took another look. And then, when the stories came around the last time, it was as if he was listing all the things I had ignored. They were his complaint against me.
I gave my regrets; I wouldn't be staying the extra day I’d planned I blamed my allergies, and no one was fooled. But before I left, Daniel wanted me to help him with an errand. He had to carry a table from the ministorage to the antique store, about a hundred yards away. It would take five minutes. I was afraid to be alone with him.
He and I walked to the ministorage, alone together. I said nothing. He told me he didn't believe I had allergies, that sickness was all in the mind. As he unlocked the unit, he said, “Your mom told me about you. You used to shit in your pants”
As a child, my secret shame had been encopresis, an inability to move my bowels, causing me to frequently soil myself. Until I grew out of it, this humiliation was my deepest source of shame. (Even now I double and triple check that, yes, I’ve written that I grew out of it. ) That my mother had told Daniel probably meant nothing to her; to me it was a betrayal. To pick on me, Daniel was looking back to my childhood, which was idiotic, but effective, because I suddenly felt like a six-year-old. I was boiling over, but if I gave him a reason, he could try to kill me. Or he could wait until I left, then take it out on my mother. So I focused on our errand.
A glass tabletop, thick and heavy, was stored under blankets. We picked it up together and carried it out of the storage, down a flight of stairs outside, and we crossed the street with it, bringing it up a wooden walkway that led to the antique store. The store was three or four rooms packed with stacks of Collier's magazines and sheet music, shelves of Depression glass, and rows and rows of furniture. Beulah, about 75 years old, sat in an easy chair that had long ago molded to her shape. Daniel knew just where she wanted the table, and after we set it down, I dusted off my hands, ready to leave.
“Before you go, say hello to David,” Daniel said. He pointed to a doorway leading to another room.
I had no idea who David was. There was a sign over the doorway, “David’s Room,” and I could hear odd noises, like applause, and I heard a quick chirp or two, as if in response, wondered if David was a bird.
Beyond the doorway was another room of antiques and bargains, and in the center was a hospital bed, and next to the bed was a television tuned to an afternoon talk show. David was in the bed, positioned to see the TV and any visitors who came in. He was so horribly deformed, a birth defect, it was hard to tell how old he was. My impression was of a huge, misshapen head, almost hairless, eyes unfocused, and a lump of a body concealed by pajamas with cowboys on them. His arms were like broken twigs, Shiny and dark in places like cooked chicken.
A hand-lettered sign next to the bed read “Hi, My Name Is David and I Like Visitors.” It went on to list all of his loves (like Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right) and said that although he was probably blind and deaf (no one really knew), you should always come in and say “Hi.” I don’t remember my reaction. I hope I at least said “Hi,” but I was mostly dumbfounded: who expects to find this when browsing for antiques? I have a memory of Beulah coming in and making me put my fingers into David’s moist fist and feeling his grip.
But that memory is something I made up. It’s too perfect an encapsulation of the relationship between me, my mother, and Daniel. Also, a year later, my mother was actually putting her own fingers into Daniel’s fist, looking for a responsive squeeze, and Daniel’s mother, a nurse, was telling her that no one knew if that was just a reflex, and my mother herself was convinced that it meant Daniel knew who she was.
An HIV-positive man with SSI had turned out to be a bonanza for the local medical establishment. Daniel began to show physical symptoms. Weight loss. Skin problems. Digestion problems. At one point, he was so constipated, he could not walk. (At no point until now did I think to say Dear Daniel, Happy Encopresis!) He took 17 pills a day. He had CAT scans, MRIs, blood tests, psychiatric workups, experimental therapies. He was not the crystal-wearing, positive thinking, relaxation-technique kind of dying man. He chain-smoked, he ate a hearty meat-and-potatoes diet, and he drank two or three six-packs of Coca-Cola a day. But he would not die. In a year, he ran up over $100,000 in expenses.
In July 1995, Daniel had an aneurysm and went into a coma. The doctors said that even if he survived, there had been so much brain damage that everything you’d call “consciousness” was wiped out, along with all voluntary movement. At least — they thought so. Miracles were always possible.
When I came back to my mom’s, it was 106 degrees at noon, and the town was deserted. I walked from the trailer to the general store to buy a soda. When I came out, a minister was walking slowly from the edge of town toward the fire station. I’d met him once before. Plaid shirt with pearl buttons, dirty new jeans, cowboy boots, straw hat, glasses. He was a minister full-time, but to pay the bills, he did something for the railroad that involved standing by the tracks for hours with a walkie-talkie, alone.
When we ran into each other, we exchanged comments about the weather, and then he took on a thousand-yard stare; he was going to tell me something instructive. Fixing me with watery blue eyes, he said he’d talked with Daniel many times. He said Daniel got riled up about the Book of Revelation, and he used to tell him, “Easy, Daniel, easy.”
There were many awkward pauses in a conversation that couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes. I think he wanted to say that he knew Daniel was a freak and that my mother was better off alone, but, to complicate matters, he just knew that somehow Daniel’s religious fervor would ultimately save him. “God has a plan,” he said, “and it’s not for us to question it. He won’t take Daniel one second too early or too late.”
Then the minister told me a story. His own mother had Parkinson’s disease and had been in a hospital bed for five years. For the last two years, she had been fed through a tube in her stomach. But God hadn’t taken her away yet.
I asked, “Does she know what’s going on?”
“It’s hard to say. She has Alzheimer’s too, so we don’t really know. But the important part is, it’s brought the rest of us much closer to God.”
' He said it sincerely, openly, as if trying to soothe my soul. And then he realized I was not soothed. He changed the subject.
“Glen, are you a Christian?”
He jerked—literally jerked— like I’d given him an electric shock. He’d thought he had me in a theological corner (if I’d been Christian, getting closer to God would have appealed to me; if I weren’t, then there was no way I could understand Him), and now he was on the ropes. Then he recovered, slowly grinned, and extended his hand for me to shake. I took it.
I told the woman who owned the ministorage about my conversation with the minister. She said, “A lot of us are praying for Daniel,” and then she looked around and whispered, “we’re praying for him to die.”
I was in the van with my mom. We were going to the hospital. My mother was saying, “Part of this is difficult for me. The way Daniel...what brought it on...” My mother sometimes reveals startling information to me when she is driving. I know when it’s coming because her expression changes, and she pays intense attention to the road ahead, as if we’re about to cross a hostile border, and she’s remembering protocol for bribing the guards. Her diction becomes circumspect. When my mother is fishing for words, I don’t want to hear them. “When I found him...” she said.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“He was lying on the bed.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I don’t want to know.”
She looked from the road to me, and back again, and she didn’t tell me.
Everyone wondered what would become of Missy if Daniel died. Rather than rushing or even trotting from place to place, Missy was moping around the house, the store, waiting for a call or a whistle or an exhortation to sing. After dinner, my mother said, “Missy, where’s your dolly?” and Missy looked at her quizzically, as if wondering whether my mother thought she was stupid or something.
In the emergency room waiting area, my mother talked about the last time she had seen Daniel, how they had fought, and he had gone home, and then she knew something was wrong when she saw Missy behaving so strangely, so she went back to the trailer and found him, and she called the paramedics, but she “fixed him up” first. They had led separate lives sexually since long before he was positive.. .and she was grateful he never put it in front of her face.. .he was always discreet.. .but this time...
I stopped her.
Daniel’s mother joined us. My mother disliked her because she hadn’t been there for Daniel throughout his life. And apparently she had only come now after learning that, should Daniel survive, SSI would pay $3500 a month to a full-time caregiver. As a registered nurse, she would do well if the court awarded her custody.
He was in the intensive care ward. My mother, Daniel’s mother, and I went to the foot of his bed, where he lay nude under a sheet that just covered his navel. His hair had been shaven by his right temple, and a cone-shaped monitor had been inserted under his scalp, wires running to a machine by his side. There were electrodes on his chest, on either side of an amateurish Playboy bunny tattoo.
Because I felt embarrassed to look at him, I looked at the machines. One breathed for him, 14 times a minute. Another monitored brain and heart activity. There were three IV bags with potassium, saline, and morphine. A bag at the end of the bed was half-filled with urine.
My mother and his mother were talking to him. I read his charts. I couldn’t find where it said he was HIV positive, but I suppose it was in some medical code. His chart was next to a mirror under which my mother had put a dozen PayDay candy bars, his favorite. She had taped to the mirror a piece of paper with his favorite expression: Love is the Answer.
And then I looked at him. I tried to feel glad that he, the man who had caused me the most pain in the last ten years, was almost dead, but all I could feel was a cheated kind of emptiness. He looked like he was asleep, head lolling, outline of his penis under the sheet, legs braced in some odd position that his mother explained was changed every couple of hours to keep the blood from pooling. His privacy had already died.
Because Daniel’s mother was a nurse, she knew how to make him do something eerie.
“Daniel. Daniel? Daniel? Daniel!” When she got the pitch just right, demanding an answer, the monitor showed his brain patterns suddenly pumping out square waves, and he jerked and his eyes opened. Spasmodic twitching in his arms; then, he relaxed back onto the bed.
I had seen his eyes open. I had seen him see me.
“Could he see us?” I asked.
“Maybe,” his mother said.
My mother told me that when she brought him a small, stuffed dog and told him it was Missy, he had done the same thing.
“I thought his arms and legs were paralyzed,” I said.
“He might recover,” his mother said. I was horrified. I understood that if there was any chance for Daniel to make a partial recovery, he would do so, and my mother would fight tooth and claw to be his full-time nurse for the next 20 years.
Daniel’s mother said we should all talk to him, to bring him out of the coma. She lectured him in a practiced nurse’s voice, telling him to be a good boy, telling him she loved him. Then my mother took over, telling him Missy was here and needed someone to play with her dolly, telling him the store needed to be open, telling him he’d bought a winning lottery ticket. There was no response.
They wanted me to talk to him. While they consulted with a doctor, I was left alone for a second with Daniel. I looked at the shaved part of his head, the tattoo, the clench to his eyebrows that had remained since his mother had called him back.
“Daniel, you’re going to live forever.”
Then my mother and I went out for ice cream.
A week after he went into a coma, Daniel was taken off his respirator. The doctors felt he wasn’t strong enough to breathe on his own and that death would be almost instantaneous. Disconnecting the machine was a humanitarian gesture.
My mother reported with satisfaction that Daniel immediately started breathing by himself. It was possible he would recover. One of my mother’s neighbors called me and asked me to do everything I could to make sure my mother wouldn’t tie herself to an invalid Daniel for the rest of her life. She said it was the only thing the town was talking about: why was my mother so in love with this awful man?
At three o’clock one morning, my mother woke up to see Daniel standing at the foot of the bed. He dissolved as she became fully awake.
She called the hospital. He’d had a second aneurysm, and a stroke, and had died.
She called me, sobbing. She kept telling me there had been good times, that she couldn’t have stayed with him if there weren’t good times. I said I knew.
She put out a flyer thanking the community for all its help. She talked about how special Daniel was, including his “Love is the Answer” quotation. Her writing was strong and effective and heartfelt.
My mom was so grief-stricken weeks later that I called my friend Norma, who counsels battered women. Norma had been a prostitute and a heroin addict and has seen everything. I told her my mother needed to talk to someone. So my mother and Norma talked, and afterwards, Norma called me back. My mother had told her that I wasn’t supportive, that I looked down on her, that she blamed me for deserting her. I can’t say that was easy to hear, but it was by now an old story.
“Your mother was upset by something else. Apparently you didn’t want to know what Daniel was doing when he had his aneurysm.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Well, she told me.”
I thought about this. “Not just masturbating, right?”
“No, not just that. There’s more.”
“And it’s bad?”
Norma, who once bit a guy’s finger off when he was trying to kill her, has seen a lot of bad things. She said this was pretty bad.
My girlfriend was dying to know. I put her on the phone with Norma. I stood out on our balcony for a while, listening to traffic. A few minutes later, my girlfriend came out, eyes wide. She asked me if I wanted to know what Norma had told her. I said no. For most of the night, she tried to bait me into asking. She couldn’t believe I didn’t want to know.
I talk to my mother every couple of weeks. She’s doing the secondhand business alone and is scraping by. When it rains or is particularly cold, business is bad, but when it’s warm, she makes some money, which she plows back into the store. She has her own billboard.
She dates sometimes. She says she misses sex a little, so sometimes she goes out with men, but nothing serious.
One man is a deadbeat dad. His son was born without a rectum. And there’s a man in his 80s who’s dying of cancer, and when my mom wished him a Merry Christmas, he burst into tears. One man courting her flew his own plane, but my mother didn’t want a “daredevil” date. The evening she refused to go with him, he crashed. He survived but had to run away from the plane because he was covered in gasoline. He didn’t look where he was going and ran into downed power lines, setting himself on fire. He lingered for weeks before he died.
Mom tells me she’s fine on her own now and that whenever men get too close, all she has to do is tell them that Daniel died of AIDS. The rumor around town is that my mom has it too. She seems to like this rumor. When a new dentist opened his office there, he met my mother and wanted her to be his first patient. He offered my mother a free exam, and she told him not to ruin his practice before it started.
Recently, my mom closed the store for a couple of days and came to see me. With her was Missy.
Missy stopped looking for Daniel soon after his death. She liked how my mother cooked for her, pampered her, played with her doll after dinner. My mother never owned a dog before, but she likes the company. When they go to the park together, my mother teases her, crying, “Squirrel-y, Missy, where’s the squirrel-y?” just like Daniel used to, and Missy goes crazy.
When I wrote that this was a story about the redemptive power of love, this is the love I was referring to. Missy loves my mother. My mother loves Missy. Both of them used to love Daniel, but they are getting along okay.
There is an artistic drive to seek out the darkest ending, the poetry of irredeemable loss, but I can plead that in surviving with my mother, I have learned very little respect for that kind of thing. So, by all rights, I should end this piece right here: with the moderate hope that I feel, with my mother and her dog, alone, maybe healing.
But I just visited a therapist I had in the early 1970s, when I was a child. He also treated my mother. I gave him a draft of this story to see what he thought.
When I came in for a follow-up, the manuscript was on his desk, folded back to the description of my mother making hot dogs for sailors. The therapist, a gentle, soft-spoken man now in his 70s, was visibly shaken.
He told me that my portrait was frighteningly accurate. It depressed him, I think because he was questioning how effective her therapy had been.
Finally, he said, “Your mother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.” He explained that growing up in London, during the aerial bombardment of World War II, with a schizophrenic mother and the social stigma of a German father, in a seedy boarding house filled with American soldiers, was devastating. “You can’t imagine the horror of her childhood,” he said. The result of her disorder is that she is continuously driven to re-create the trauma and the horror of life on the edge; it’s the only way she feels comfortable.
“But as a therapist, when I read this, I was left with one question: what about you?”
“I see here that you’ve nearly written a therapeutic history of your mother, and yet, emotionally, you’re almost entirely absent. The question is how did you cope?”
He was a good therapist; he had, of course, put the answer into the question. I had coped by becoming emotionally distant, by turning every troubling thing I went through into a story.
It took me a couple of days to absorb the importance of that discussion: I now have a name for the behavior that has puzzled me for my whole life. I have an understanding of why I write. And, coincidentally, I just received a phone call from my mother: the store, which had muddled by, is about to go bankrupt. If only she could get together some investors. .
When I began this memoir, I knew it would end with a moment that I had found emblematic. I never fully understood it but have returned to it, time and again, when considering the mystery of survival: my mother’s and, yes, mine.
Early into my mother’s relationship with Daniel, they were living in a van. I arranged to meet my mother alone in Newport Beach at Fashion Island, the outdoor shopping mall near where she, my father, and I had once lived. I hadn’t seen her in a year, and she’d aged quite a bit. She was having trouble walking in her shoes, which she’d found in a dumpster, and the ice-cream cone I’d bought her kept dripping into her lap. She asked me when I was going to get married, when I was going to make her a grandmother, if I wanted to get in on her multilevel marketing scheme, if I wanted to learn to be a paralegal.
We walked together slowly through the mall, which as ever was tenanted by expensive stores. We passed Russo’s Pets. When I was a child, I’d loved going there to see the two-headed snake. It was still there, now stuffed and in a diorama kept in back.
At the playground, my mother reminisced about how she used to take me there, how patient I was with children who weren’t so smart. “You used to show them how to play. If you ever wanted to get into my multilevel marketing plan, you’d be good at sales.”
Finally, I could take no more of being with her. I knew I was about to leave, and that when I did, she would join Daniel, and he might kill her. But I was still ready to hug her good-bye. I wrote in my journal that day, “In any crowd, I see children, thousands of children, startling in their simple needs. My mother sees deposed princes, unjustly accused doctors, inventors who need money to tight the patent office. ’ I had realized my mother was trapped in a fantasy, that she couldn’t tell the difference between the Wizard of Oz and the Man Behind the Curtain. But for the first time, I was going to cut her loose to save myself. And that’s how it’s been ever since, and it’s never gotten easy.
She spotted a jewelry store she used to shop in, back when we were rich. There was a sign in the window: “Ask about our contest. Details inside.”
She wanted to go in for a minute before we said good-bye.
Immediately, I saw that the store had sunk from its former days into something like one of my mother’s business ventures. The atmosphere was sad and frantic, a company desperate to stay afloat. There were bright orange sale signs over most of he merchandise. The owner, red-eyed, broken veins in his nose, asked f he could help us
“My son and I came in about your contest. “
He walked us to the end of the counter. Ten diamonds, half a carat each, rested on a black velvet backing board. ‘Nine of these are cubic zirconium. If you can guess which is a real diamond, you get $50 off any purchase of $200 or more.”
I thanked him. I was tired. It was late, and this long day had to end. I thought we were ready to leave.
But my mother said, “Diamond,” pointing at one particular stone.
The owner smiled. “That’s right. That’s the diamond. You’re the winner.”