Manual Labor

Vince Samarco

As he slung the sheet around his motherís neck, testing his courage to tighten it -- the dingy, flower-printed sheet first falling like a broad necklace, then retracting like a collar -- his one clear thought was about batteries. He thought not of Duracel or Energizer brands, batteries they could never afford, but of the no-name brand without a logo, just the word "Alkaline" printed across the curved width in large red letters. He thought of how, when he was much younger, his mother told him they were Al Kaline batteries, and from then on he would use them with pride, believing they packed as much a punch as the Tigers' right fielder and were as steady and touched with grace.

His mother did not resist the sheetís movement, had stopped resisting altogether when the meds had turned her into something she wasnít -- dull, fat, unable to find her way home from the K Mart five minutes away. It was in one of her brief, lucid moments the previous week that she asked him to do it. Now, she stood in front of him in the rotting attic, her arms stretched backwards so she could grip the sides of his corduroys. She took long, deliberate breaths, the exhales extending through the room. He could not tell if she knew what was happening.

He thought about the Christmas when his aunt and mother gave him versions of the same electric-powered car, both molded plastic and run with nine-volt batteries, his auntís a Dusenberg, his motherís a Model T. He recalled how the two sisters stood behind him as he raced the cars down his auntís long checkered hallway, past her refinished phone stand and new washer-dryer, the Dusenberg always two feet ahead of the Ford no matter how much he secretly bent the otherís front wheels, his motherís hands always on her hips, her sisterís smile unmistakable.

It had taken him a week of deliberating and walking around the city to accept the symmetry of the proposition. He stopped playing basketball after school so he could take the bus to the neighborhoods they had lived in and fled. There was the first campus apartment where he and his three sisters found themselves after the divorce. He circled the sturdy brick, the garden they all helped to plant, the Laundromat with the washers they could rig so they could afford to be clean. There was the wood-framed apartment with the rotting shingles, forsythia in the tiny back yard winding without reason. There was this house, crevices between windows and frames, a rush of air always before them, strange cars circling at night, and always, even in the daylight, the presence of shadows.

Their last conversation remained with him throughout the visits, how it was an even trade, a life for a life. The life was still with him, still in her, clinging to his pants. He wanted to whisper something to her, the word "love" close at hand, but the moment and the weight of the message did not correspond.

He thought about how for his thirteenth birthday she had brought home an electric shaver from the Salvation Army, saying it didnít work yet without the rechargeable battery pack, a gaping hole at the end of the hollow stand, but that when things were better and she could afford it, sheíd get it fixed. For months, he kept the shaver in a shoebox beneath his bed, safe from the dust, wayward patches of facial hair beginning to spread across his cheekbones and at the ridge of his neck above his Adamís apple. He would not use a disposable shaver but removed the electric one from the shoebox at night and pressed the cool steel to his skin, this sensation more important than a smooth face, more important than anything.

A few times he was able to come close. He realized that by lifting and bending back so she rested on him -- so that, for a moment, his body truly supported hers, her graying and brittle hair brushing against and burning his face, the sides of her only dress (stolen from a maternity shop to fit her frame) flopping over his legs like elephant ears -- then, the balance was right. For the rest, he was counting on what she had taught him to count on, and that he had purposely brought for the occasion, the clear liquid still visible above the label, a sign he needed more.

He thought about the campsite she pulled her failing VW van into after the checks dried up but before they were granted a right to a home. They parked at the outskirts of the grounds in late October, the outskirts so as not to be seen, so as to let the shame of their circumstances settle elsewhere, so that, there, alone, it could be a camping trip with songs and marshmallows and face-painting. Everything they owned was in the van, including the last of their food -- Milky Ways and Ho-Hos -- half-eaten on the floor. He helped his mother make a fire, then popped the camper so his sisters could sleep. When they were quiet, he tried to tune in an AM radio station for some music, the green display where the numbers usually appeared remaining dark no matter how many times he pressed the "on" knob. His mother had her back to the fire, her head from time to time raised, the end of a bottle visible. He joined her, and when he asked about the radio, she shook her head and without hesitation gave him a swig, the warmth appeasing the day. "Youíll need it," she said.

He recognized now how right she had been about most things, and especially about that. It was as if families like his needed the presence of another world to function, a world where alcohol was power, good intentions justice, and everywhere solutions rode visibly on bright, friendly waves. He remembered clearly back to that night, clearly back to the campground because he did not want to notice how her legs were now lifted two inches off the ground, her face compliant, her feet jangling. The long road to this point began the night they drank next to the van, the night his mother said to him the words that worked their way into his bones, that sustained him through menial jobs, that delivered him from the memories that found him at the end of the day: "For people like us to make it in this world," she said, "weíll have to use our own two hands."