Two weeks ago I got a phone call from my mother. She was calling from a phone booth across the street from my apartment and said that she'd taken a bus up from Provincetown. She had some cheques that one of her Canadian friends had written her and she needed me to cash them.
When I let her in, she handed me a copy of The Making of Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein as a gift. The pages were stuck together as if it had been found in a box in the garbage. "I guess it's kind of stupid because it's a book about a movie," she said. "But it's still Frankenstein, right?" She had a tiny book about insects for Arizona.
I hadn't seen my mother in about four years. The last time I saw her was by accident, when I ran into her at a house party in Richmond, Virginia. She had a Jean Cocteau book with her. She had underlined practically the whole book.
"It used to be a unique thing to have a pet rat," my mom started rambling as she fell down onto my couch. "But now every punk on the corner has a rat on their shoulder. It's like it used to be that if you saw someone with a shaved head, you knew they were cool. That you could like go and talk to them. But then everyone started shaving their heads, so you never know what's up."
She acted like I was rich. "Where did you get that necklace?" she asked me, staring with awe at this gold chain around my neck that had a pendant that said Heather. During the day she wrote letters to people who lived all over the states. They all said things like, "I miss you. I was thinking of maybe taking a break and coming to see you."
My dad met my mom when she was nineteen. She had run away from home. She was sitting in a park with a small duffel bag of clothes, just being a hippie. My dad was twenty years older than her. He was a tough guy and wanted to take care of her. She left when I was six and has been drifting ever since, sleeping here and there.
Now she acted all excited that she and Arizona and I were all together in my apartment, like this would be an ideal living arrangement. She started saying things to make us sound like a team: "Aren't we just like in the Grapes of Wrath? Three generations under the same roof." She told me that Andy Warhol's mother came to live with him after he made it.
She heard from someone at a bar that welfare was easy to get here as long as you have an address. So she got me to look for a place for her last week.
When I was a kid, my mom used to wear leather jackets and leather pants and her hair was naturally black and way down her back. I used to think she was so wild looking. But last week, when we were walking down the street together, I thought she looked like a homeless person. She chewed on a toothbrush at the bus stop. It was warm outside and she was wearing this military coat with red stars stitched all over it. I knew she considered it her dress-up jacket.
The first room we looked at was small and dark. The walls had been painted years ago. The green had lost all its color. There were spiders in the sink. The bed was standing up against the wall. There was a hot plate. There was only one window. You could put a photograph on the wall. Really it could be any room, if you wanted to be optimistic.
"I could buy a second-hand typewriter and put it on the table. I'll be just like George Orwell," my mom said, turning to me.
I never see these rooming houses when I'm not with my mother. They're invisible. Loose-leaf papers above the door handles announce that there are rooms for rent. My mother knows where they are. She knows where to find them. She knows where the food banks and coke dealers are a week after she moves to a city. We looked at four or five other rooms that day.
After the fifth room, we decided to get a drink. We went to an alcoholics' bar, the kind where the windows to the outside are tinted, and it's crowded even though it's three o'clock in the afternoon. I bought her a pack of cigarettes. She asked the bartender if she could order a glass of arsenic.
"Look at that guy," she said. There was this young guy with his hair just matting. He had striped pants and an undershirt. He was dressed like someone in Africa in cast-off North American clothes. He was just one day away from being a bum. But that day is a special place: you think you've gotten away with it. You think you've gotten away with just doing exactly what you please and feeling good. There's a brief moment before cool things become depressing.
"Nick Cave always keeps a suitcase by the front door. Did you know that?" my mom said. She kept having to make these analogies for me so that I would think that everything was cool, so that I would still be impressed with her way of life.
Sometimes she would take us on trips when we were kids. We always stayed in motels on strangers' credit cards. She said that we were like the Beatles because we made such a mess of the rooms we stayed in. She got me into black jackets, sunglasses, cigarette vending machines, and graffiti. She got me into thinking that poor people were cooler than rich people, that art and expression were the most important things in life, that it is enough to have personality, that personality is next to godliness.
"I should go and get my stuff at the bus station," she said.
My mother saw the world. My sisters and I grew up, meanwhile, in little apartments in the poor areas of Montreal. She told me once a long time ago that she needed to be free to be an artist. I can't imagine giving up Arizona because of the notebook of poems in my pocket.
My mother wasn't going to take any of the rooms that we looked at. It was just a ritual. She was waiting for me to tell her she could move into my place permanently. She was carrying all her stuff, so she said she would just stay at the Brewery Mission. She said that there was a section just for women. She said she went a few days ago and the lady who worked there was very nice and the mission itself was clean. But don't tell your father I'm staying there.
There was a small line of people shuffling into the door of the mission. They looked like immigrants from some very cold place where all anyone does is read poetry. The window was a one-way mirror. When I tried to look in, I could only see myself.
I bought this pair of leather boots at the Sally Ann today that are skinny and turn way up at the toes. They made me think of that Bob Dylan line, "Shakespeare, he's in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells." I thought my mother would love them. I called the mission when I got home but they said she wasn't staying there any more. Now the boots are sitting by the front door with all the other shoes, until I see her again.