Girls I Know

By Douglas Trevor

SixOneSeven Books
May 2013


When Walt Steadman was six, his mother began to act a little strangely. First he noticed his grandparents noticing. Then little things began to catch his attention, although he dismissed them with the nonchalance of a child. So his mother's right eye had begun to flicker regularly, like a candle. But that was fine because it didn't seem to bother her. And then he saw her left hand on the arm of the couch one night, shaking like a branch in the wind. Well, that was weird, but so what?

One morning, while he was eating breakfast with his grandparents and his mother was in the bathroom, brushing her teeth, she collapsed. Even now, twenty-three years later, he could hear the sound of her body crashing against the sink, then falling back onto the floor. He could see the look in his grandmother's face: shock and fear. His grandfather swooped up his daughter and the three of them drove her to Fletcher Allen Hospital, where she underwent a battery of tests that went on for days. Walt assumed that the tests were going to make his mom feel better. He went to school that week as he always did. But that Friday afternoon, when he stepped out of the playground and saw his grandfather standing across the street, waiting to walk home with him, he knew that his mother hadn't gotten better: that something was wrong, and his grandfather had come to tell him what it was.

The walk from Walt's elementary school to their home in South Burlington took about fifteen minutes. They passed several groves of trees, since swallowed up by housing developments, and a bunch of modest homes just like theirs: single-story, aluminum-sided residences with big American sedans parked in their driveways. As they walked, Mr. Steadman held his grandson's hand. He asked Walt if he had ever heard of something called multiple sclerosis. Walt hadn't. His grandfather explained that it was a disease that made the cells in someone's brain and spinal cord have a hard time talking to each other. "When they can't talk," Andrew Steadman added, "then your body has a hard time working right. And it seems..." And here he choked up, which was so unlike him that Walt looked up into his face with outright fear. His grandfather kept everything on an even keel at home. He had served in World War Two and sometimes at night he would tell Walt stories about the battles he had been in. In every account, when Walt asked if he had ever been afraid, his grandfather always answered yes, which confused him. "Then how did you make it through, if you were scared?" Walt would ask. And his grandfather would lean toward him, as if he were sharing a secret. "You'd be amazed, Walter, at what you can accomplish when you're scared. The thing is, you can't be afraid of being afraid, because everyone is afraid at one time or another. You have to remind yourself that it's okay to be scared of stuff, so that when you are frightened, you don't freeze up. There's no shame in being afraid, remember that."

That day, Andrew Steadman looked scared. He started over again. "And it seems that there are two kinds of multiple sclerosis. One is called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. The other is called progressive multiple sclerosis. The doctors think your mom might have the second kind. That means, over time, she might have a hard time, using her body and even her brain. But we'll help her, won't we?" And Walt remembered nodding his head vigorously and his grandfather patting him on the back. "Of course we will. We'll help her, and we'll help each other as well."

Months went by. Marion Steadman was on medication. She was seeing a specialist. Her eye still fluttered, but her hand didn't seem to shake as much. Everything went more or less back to normal, except Walt's mom had to reduce her hours at the Fletcher Free Library, where she worked as a librarian. Then, one Saturday, they were getting ready to go have a picnic on Grand Isle and Marion Steadman called for her mother from her bedroom. She had lain down to rest and couldn't get up. They called an ambulance. The following week, the doctors changed their diagnosis; Marion had relapsing-remitting MS, marked by pronounced attacks that left permanent neurological damage. Less than a year later, after another attack, she no longer had the use of her legs.

Walt didn't remember having a direct response to his mother's illness. Instead, he remembered his reaction when his grandfather built a ramp up to the front door of their house in order to accommodate his mom's wheelchair. Walt sat in the window and watched him work, refusing to help him set the posts or nail down the boards. "The ramp is so ugly," he remembered complaining to his grandmother. "No one else has one. It isn't fair." About this time, late one afternoon, Jason Rutovski called him over from across the street. Jason was a delinquent and a bully. His clothes were two sizes too small and he always had bruises up and down his arms from his dad, who beat him sometimes with a belt in their driveway. Jason was just a year older than Walt but he towered over him. Once Walt had made his way over to his weedy yard, Jason glared down at him, his nose wrinkled in disgust, as if the whole Steadman home had begun to give off some kind of odor. "Is your mom, is she—like—retarded now?" he asked Walt. Walt didn't know if having MS and being retarded was the same thing, he feared it might be, so in response he tried to punch Jason in the face, which was a big mistake. He got the crap beaten out of him.

From then on, just as his grandfather had said would happen, the three of them cared for his mother together. They helped get her dressed in the morning. They stretched her limbs in the afternoon. They bathed her at night. And slowly, as the years went by and the light seemed to go out in Marion's eyes, they discussed her condition less and less. There was no getting better with MS. The doctors had all told them that, but it took a few years for the harsh truth of the statement to sink in. And as Marion got worse, the Steadman financial situation also declined. Eleanor retired from teaching to care for her daughter, so they were living on one high school teacher's salary instead of two. Their medical bills, what Medicaid didn't cover, were extraordinary. They had to buy a van to accommodate Marion's wheelchair. Before they had watched their spending like everyone else did in their neighborhood. Now, Walt began to sense, they were distinctly frugal. As a young boy, not having a father had struck Walt as unfair and cruel at moments, but at those moments he had always reminded himself that he had his grandfather. Now that their lack of money was palpable, Walt thought more and more about his unknown dad, but in a different way from before. What they needed more than anything was to have another breadwinner around. They needed more help than they had.

To save money, Walt lived at home the first two years that he was a student at the University of Vermont. He majored in English. His selection of a major seemed less like a choice than just a natural outgrowth of his home life, where—every evening—Walt's grandmother read poems to his mother in the living room while Walt and his grandfather played checkers or Yahtzee at the kitchen table. As a boy, he never saw himself as someone who loved verse. Instead, he saw himself as a kid with a horrible TV situation: an old set with temperamental rabbit ears that only picked up the local ABC affiliate and PBS. He read because he had no other entertainment options, and he read a lot of poems because books of poetry were everywhere in the house, especially the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost was his grandmother's favorite writer.

All through high school, Walt had been reminded again and again of just how different his family situation was from those of his friends: not just that he had a sick mom and a missing dad and that he lived with his grandparents, but that his grandfather taught at South Burlington High, where he himself was a student. It wasn't until he went to college that Walt began to realize that his fondness—what he was more likely to call at that time his comfort—with poetry wasn't the only thing that he had acquired from his unusual upbringing. As a kid, he had grown up listening to his grandfather's jazz records. At parties, he knew when a Nirvana song was playing but he didn't listen to Nirvana himself; he listened to Miles Davis. So he knew a lot about jazz. And he knew how to care for someone with MS, how to maneuver a body whose muscles had atrophied. At the same time, he didn't know how to ski or play tennis. When his junior-year roommates complained about the road trips they had been forced to take with their parents, driving to Yellowstone, to Orlando, to the Grand Canyon, Walt remained silent in his bunk bed. The farthest the Steadmans had ventured from Burlington was Willsboro Bay, on the other side of Lake Champlain.
Through his childhood and early adulthood, through all the efforts he and his grandparents made to help Marion Steadman make it through her life, Walt came away believing that there wasn't much one person could do for another person to change that person's life. Granted, you could try, you could make gestures, but they were just that in the end—gestures. Of course Walt couldn't be sure, but he always suspected that his mother's condition had made him more self- involved than he might otherwise have been and a lot more fatalistic, even if his fatalism was hidden beneath a veneer of cheerfulness.

Halfway through his senior year in college, Walt decided to apply to PhD programs in English. He told the professors he approached for letters of recommendation that he wanted to continue his studies of twentieth-century American poetry, which was true, but just as much, he wanted to stay in school. College was, for him, like the Early Bird Café, the restaurant where he had breakfast each morning, before he had discovered the Early Bird Café.

He applied to more than a dozen programs, including, for the hell of it, Harvard. When his application there was actually accepted, Walt immediately jumped at the opportunity to move down to Cambridge, even though the aid package presented to him seemed a little paltry. After matriculating, he learned that his acceptance had really been intended as a gentle rejection; no one in the English Department had expected him to accept such a small stipend to study and live in such an expensive place. No one imagined just how little money a kid like him would be willing to take in order to have an excuse to leave Burlington.

So at twenty-three, he left his hometown with no intention of ever returning, except for the occasional holiday and summer vacation. And his days suddenly became all about what he wanted to do, or didn't want to do, which was wonderful. He lived on campus his first year, then up in Porter Square his second. Once his coursework and exams were completed, however, and he came face to face with the terrifying task of trying to write a dissertation, Walt took his job as a superintendent and moved across the Charles River to Boston, the city where most of his favorite poets had either lived or passed through at one time or another. Walt loved living in Boston, although with this love came more than a little guilt. By then his mother needed more help than ever. His grandfather had passed away back in 1997. There was even less money than before. And there were even more tests that his mother required: more physical therapy, more medication. His grandmother handled everything, never complaining, never asking Walt to move back home. And Walt, in return, tried not to think about Burlington. He told himself to take nothing for granted because he knew he was lucky to have what he did and that life was both very predictable and very unpredictable. On the one hand, he could collapse one morning in his bathroom and never be the same. On the other hand, at some point his grandmother would pass away—she would be eighty in a little more than a year—and then he would have to take care of his mother. So until that happened, he told himself to try to savor every day he spent as a resident of Boston.

After leaving the Early Bird that morning, Walt decided to go to the Museum of Fine Arts himself. Walt loved museums but only during the week, when they were quiet and still. He stared for a while at the Sargent painting he had mentioned to Flora in the café, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." He looked at paintings by Matisse and Hockney and Warhol and imagined that they were being displayed not in a museum, but rather in a private home to which he had access but did not own. He imagined himself, that is, in proximity to wealth, but not in direct possession of it: that would have strained believability too much. When he picked up his dilapidated jacket at the coat check, he apologized to the girl behind the counter for taking up one of her hangers. She laughed. Then Walt headed to the Back Bay on the T, stopped by his apartment to grab his Norton Anthology of Poetry, and took a nice, roundabout walk to Floyd's Cleaners, where he sat through his five-hour shift. He chatted with the same customers he saw every few days, read poems by John Crowe Ransom and Richard Wright and John Berryman, cracked some jokes with complete strangers—some of which went over, some of which didn't—and then headed home at five.

Since he always had a good breakfast, and was on a tight budget, Walt never ate lunch, and because he never ate lunch, he was always starving in the early evening. There was a small deli across from his building and Walt usually swung by and bought a burrito and a Coke before going inside to his basement studio, but that night his routine was disrupted by the sight of a girl in the half-light, hunched over the doorknob of his building. He knew the silhouettes of all of his tenants and this girl wasn't a tenant. If she had been, he would have waited in the shadows until she had entered the building. Instead, he crossed the street and made his way toward her.

She was wearing a black wool skirt and black leggings, with big, clunky black boots on her feet. Walt noticed the boots when the girl stepped back and gave the doorknob a swift kick. The next thing he noticed was her parka, which was silver colored, puffy, and stylish. She was a good-looking girl, wearing an expensive outfit and acting miffed. In the Back Bay, she fit right in.

"Can I help you?" he called up to her.

She stepped back onto the top step of the building's entrance and turned toward him. "This lock is a piece of shit."

"Yeah, you can't put the key all the way in; if you do it won't catch." Walt skipped up the steps, slipped around her, and withdrew the key ever so slightly from the lock. Then he turned it with ease. "See?"

"Cool, thanks. One of my movers figured it out this morning but he didn't tell me the trick. The super was supposed to meet us here but he didn't show."

Walt straightened his posture. Well, this was unfortunate. He had assumed she was staying with someone, not that she was a new tenant. New tenants he avoided as much as possible, since they always had tons of questions and entirely too many logistical needs. Also, he preferred for new arrivals to discover over time that he wasn't the most responsible superintendent, by which point he hoped that his reputation as a nice, affable guy would make his flakiness more forgivable.

"That's my bad. I'm the super."

She held herself awkwardly, her head out over her neck, her torso pivoted on her hips, while she frowned at him. "Walt... Sneadman?"

"Steadman, yeah. I'm so sorry."
She unwrapped a Tootsie Pop from her parka and put it in her mouth. "Didn't you get the message I left on your machine?"
"The thing about my answering machine is," he ruffled his hair as he leaned back against the side of the building in an attempt to appear a little more boyish and a little less like a superintendent, "the erase button is really close to the play button and sometimes, you know... you can hit the one instead of the other."
She smirked at him. "Maybe you should think about making the jump to voicemail." She held out her hand. "Ginger Newton."
Walt tucked his book under his arm while they shook hands. The name meant nothing to him, at least not the first name. The last name made him think a little, because of the township. "Newton?" She nodded. Walt cleared his throat. "Whose place did you buy?"

By you he meant her parents, of course. By you he named her as rich and young, probably younger than all the other occupants in the building, but not that much younger than some of them.

"No one's. I'm staying in Blair Montgomery's apartment for the semester. That's what my message explained."

"Oh, okay." He liked how she said semester, as if the academic calendar applied to everyone. She had the whole thing down: the combination of presumptuousness and lurking displeasure, the great outfit, the tortured posture. And she was really attractive, he could see now, with the streetlight right above them, if in a more than slightly clichéd way. Her complexion was very light, her nose straight, with perfectly symmetrical, thin nostrils, and her eyes were a deep blue. She also had a mass of tangled blonde hair piled on her head and set in place by an intricate system of barrettes and pins, and a pointed chin toward which her entire face was drawn.

"You know Blair Montgomery, right?"

"Yeah, I know Blair. Good guy. He's in Brussels for a few months. He's working for Microsoft on the antitrust suit the EU has brought against them."

"Is he?"
Walt nodded.
"He sent me his key and said I could just show up. I didn't think I'd have a problem with the lock, or getting ahold of you." Ginger sucked her Tootsie Pop.

"How'd you swing the place? Are you and Blair related?"

She laughed. Her laugh was louder than he expected; it startled him. "Am I related to Blair Montgomery? That's hilarious. No, he's sort of a family friend. Actually I barely know him; he's, like, twice my age." Walt winced. "I decided I needed to get out of my dorm, do something a little different. I have this idea, for a project..." She stopped herself and pointed out at the street, toward a black Lexus parked in front of a fire hydrant. "Is there anywhere I can park my car?"

"Yeah, you have a spot in back."

"Cool." She bit down on the remaining candy, removed the cardboard stick from her mouth, and threw it in the bank of snow next to the stone staircase on which she stood. In the spring, Walt thought, once the snow has thawed, I'll have to pick that up.