by Walter Chaw If I concentrate really hard--I mean, if I shut down as much external stimuli as possible, a dark room away from everyone--I can visit the tiny, rent-assisted apartment where my mom spent the final decade of her life. There's a low couch, a small coffee table I remember from when I was a kid, an old fold-out dining-room table with wings that made it hard to get your legs underneath it. A hutch, a cramped kitchen cluttered with gadgets like the air fryer that's currently on my counter and a rice cooker, of course. There are closets and drawers stuffed to overflowing with artifacts, some of which I would recognize and others I would not. I didn't spend a lot of time there. A handful of visits over the course of a decade--thousands of missed opportunities to heal a relationship I didn't believe could be healed and, moreover, didn't have the strength to heal. I wish I were different. I think there's a terrible irony embedded in how the pain I took on along the way made it impossible for me to redress the pain at the end.
Her apartment was just off the main drag of historic downtown Golden, Colorado. I spent much of my early childhood there as the chief shoeshine boy and fly-catcher at the corner barbershop, whose first chair was presided over by the mayor. My dad opened a store in Golden in the early '70s, a tourist destination where he sold mineral samples, gold-panning equipment, and the jewelry he made as a silversmith. I took the pennies I earned at the barbershop to buy Silly Putty, candy, and comic books at the 5 & 10 across Washington Street. I think there's an antique store there today--and where my dad's store was is a parking lot for a country-music bar called "The Grizzly Rose." It's been there as long as I can remember, the bar has, but it didn't used to be so big. Over the years, it expanded to the point that it needed the space and knocked down the end of the block. But when I was little, it was between my dad's store and the barbershop. I used to walk through the smoky dark of it on my way to work, smelling of the beer brewed down the street at the Coors plant. It once had a Queen of Hearts pinball machine, and sometimes my "salary" fed it. Other times it fed the jukebox. My favourite tracks were Marty Robbins's "El Paso," Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty's "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," Waylon Jennings's "I'm a Ramblin Man," Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy," and Dolly Parton's "Jolene." You could get five plays for a quarter, and sometimes the lady bartender would make me a Coke with Grenadine while I listened from the end of the bar.
I didn't speak English back then, but my dad taught me the numbers to punch on the jukebox, and I remembered them. I still remember them: E7, A0, J9, B4, A8... I'll remember that sequence when everything else is gone. My phone number for the house on Zinnia St. and its address, too; I lived there for most of elementary school and the first year or so of high school. The things at the beginning of when I knew things will be all that's left at the end of my knowing things.
I started feeling ill on Sunday night, the weekend of this year's Telluride Film Festival. Nothing concrete, just the general aches before you're about to get walloped by some species of crud. Or you'll sleep it off, be fine in the morning; yes, I'll have that cuppa. Not enough water that day; too much walking, maybe. I had spent Sunday afternoon not watching movies but instead strolling around downtown Telluride, which is similar in many ways to downtown Golden now or any small town that's stuck around long enough to be gentrified by boutiques. Looking at the people there for the festival and all the townies resenting them behind big smiles and quiet sighs, I sat down next to a pond alive with fish. I laid down on the ground and looked up through a canopy of trees, and thought really hard about my mom's apartment. It always had a smell: incense and tea? Maybe ointment, her soaps and shampoo, the detergent she used for her clothes, her dishes. I don't know. I don't know a lot.
I don't know how much of my mother's life she chose after she left Taiwan. She must have chosen to marry my dad, who was getting his doctorate at the Colorado School of Mines. After that--the decision to settle in Colorado, to open a series of small businesses, to sell a house, who was she after he died--I don't know. I didn't try to know her as an adult. I was afraid of being rejected. I was afraid it was my fault that I would be.
When I woke up Monday morning, I knew something was wrong. I had planned on staying the day and maybe getting two or three more screenings in, but my skin felt too tight. I was in the kind of discomfort you feel when you've let yourself get overtired. I don't know that I've ever been more fatigued. I knew I had to get out of the condo to avoid infecting my flatmates with whatever the hell was going on with me--if I hadn't already infected them. I loaded my stuff into my car down a flight of stairs and held onto the side of it, dry-heaving. I'm in reasonably good shape. My heart was racing, and I couldn't catch my breath. I got in the car and started driving and realized I was confused--how, in my confusion, I'd taken a wrong turn and become lost in the mountains outside Telluride without GPS or a cell signal. I pulled over next to a sign that said "Serpenthead Trailhead" and tried to push through the fog in my head to figure out what to do. I backtracked for half an hour. I stopped at a little country store and bought a 4-pack of DayQuil and a red Gatorade, because even though I've given up added sugar for the last two years, my body wanted that, needed that. I had been wearing a mask all weekend but was almost the only one. I took the pills, napped for another half-hour, and started the 7½-hour drive home.
I know my mom's apartment isn't there anymore. I mean...you know what I mean. After my sister came down and organized the things she wanted to keep and what we needed to donate and throw out, my wife and I--my wife, who was the child I could not be for my mom in my place--loaded our car up a few times and made the necessary trips. A collection of residents by the front door sat in eternal vigil, offering sympathies and asking questions. I heard how lovely my mom was, always with a nice word for them, and how sorry they were for my loss. They held the door for us. Once, an old-timer even pushed the elevator button for me. When we were done, the apartment was empty. All but her scent. That was still there. I wonder if it's there now or if it's been replaced by the scent of the new tenant. In my mind, I can't imagine the place looking any different. It is a room decorated in the kingdom of my memory, and that kingdom gets larger every day. Favourite businesses, entire neighbourhoods. My mom was the last of that generation of relatives for my wife and me--they're all gone now. I still feel like I can go into the Video+ store next to the King Soopers by Westland Mall, and catch myself wondering if I need to renew my card. But the store is gone, renting videocassettes is gone, the Westland Mall where I once had a job at Musicland is gone. So is Musicland. So is... But they're there if I think about it. If I think about it, I can get in my car and drive there, and walk for hours up and down the aisles, browsing the titles and driving my wife, who I hadn't met yet then, crazy.
All time is now. My 7½-hour drive turned into a 9-hour drive because of construction at the Eisenhower Tunnel (the one from the most memorable early chapter of Stephen King's The Stand), the whole thing passing for me in a fugue of discomfort and confusion, afraid to stop at a motel because what if I couldn't get up again? What if I couldn't get more medicine? What if I needed to go to the hospital? I had never felt so sick in my life. I listened to an audiobook of Don DeLillo's White Noise, performed by Michael Prichard in his crisp, precise phrasing, and tried to be lost in it. To passersby, I imagined I looked pallid and desperate. Despairing. I was. I got home and put my mask on. I went in and waved at my wife and kid, took a home test (positive), and went to sleep in the guest room. My wife made an appointment for me for the next day, and I got on the five-day Paxlovid course. Whether or not it did, I feel like it saved my life. And what if I'd died? What if I'd died along the way? What does my room look like in the kingdom of everyone else's mind? We are so brief here and so inconsequential, but our problems feel immense and our fears insurmountable. I am in a cage made of regret and I am the judge, jury, and jailor, but I will not be my own executioner. I'm here to matter. With several projects in the works and a few more milestones left to achieve, I'm looking for the courage to fight. Some days I can't find it. Some days, if I try really hard, I can.