All the drugs had different side effects, and it seemed like he was on a new one every time she visited. One week he was wetting the bed, and the next he lost all feeling in the tips of his fingers. She visited once when his skin was covered in purple blotches, another side effect, and once his feet were swollen like a clown’s, so he walked around with rolls of bandage wrapped around each foot, his toes sticking out the front like little birds trying to leave the nest.\n\n[[Return|Heard Her]]
Her face felt hot and she knew tears were coming, so she laid her cheek against his shoulder and flipped to the next page of pictures. \n\n“Tell me about them. Tell me about [[all of them|Photograph 6]].”\n\n\n\n<html><a href="http://www.theautumnalcity.org/vacuum/">Return to Site</a></html>
Jan 1, 1952\n\nThe photograph shows a younger Beth locked in a New Year's Eve kiss. A cigarette hangs from two fingers on her outstretched hand.\n\n[[Return|Jacob]]
He pulled the pick from his mouth when he was satisfied, and ran its tip along the strings, watching the fingers of his left hand form an awkward shape across the frets. After several attempts, he positioned his fingers to his liking and strummed the [[chord|Chord]].\n\n“I wrote a [[song|Song]] for you, Mom,” Jacob said.\n\nShe knew this was Jacob’s way of [[apologizing|Apologizing]].\n\nThe [[song’s ending|Ending]] came too quickly, before she had a chance to memorize each note so she could listen again and again.
She slid it over, so the tip reached over the edge of the coffee table, and dropped it into her purse. He had many more, and this one was special to her now. He’d never written a song for her before. She liked to have something real to remember things with. Something that proved her memories were true.\n\n[[Return|Ending]]
She turned to look at her son. He didn't want her help anymore. Not even the small things she could still do for him. Sometimes he looked like a [[stranger|Stranger]].\n\nHis hair was [[freshly cut|Haircut]], rough and spiking on the crown on his head, but she was the one that always did that.\n \n[[“Who cut your hair?”|Marcy]]
A retired schoolteacher applying for a savings account had spent an hour filling out the application, calling her daughter for each piece of forgotten information.\n\n[[Return|Start Again]]
The steps leading to her son’s apartment were caked in mud, so Beth stepped carefully on the bare spots as she worked the car keys into her purse. She was [[late|Late]]. Beth hated being late, and hoped the nurse from the [[Way Station|Way Station]] wasn’t already there, bringing Jacob’s dinner or cleaning his apartment. The woman always seemed to [[show up|The Nurse]] when Beth was visiting, interrupting the time she spent with her son.\n\nThere was no answer at the door, so she let herself [[in|Inside]]. The curtains were closed and the only illumination was the slow flashing of Christmas lights. Jacob kept the fake tree, only a few feet tall, sitting on a table by his television. Year round, its cheery, flashing lights fought to hide the ash and stains that made patchwork of the carpet. Beth had [[bought the tree for him.|Christmas Tree]]
It seemed like waiting was his whole life. \n\nWaiting to grow up big and strong like his older brother. Waiting at the hospital as doctor’s argued over charts and filled out prescriptions, and the year he’d spent in the [[psychiatric ward|Ward]]. \n\nThis apartment wasn’t much, but anything was better than the cold, white halls of the Springfield Institute in Sikesville, Maryland. \n\n[[Return|Cigarettes]]
Names, dates, a description of where the picture was taken and what was going on. “Jacob/Aaron/Dad, 1966, Park near house throwing bball.” She remembered him calling her last year, over and over again, to ask about the photographs, but she hadn’t known why.\n\n[[Return|Together]]
He pointed to a picture of Beth sitting on John’s lap, under a sprig of mistletoe hung over his easy chair. Both were captured mid-laugh, mouths open wide enough to see all of their teeth. Jacob ran the tip of one finger over each of their faces in the photograph, and Beth realized all the pictures had smudges where Jacob had touched them over and over again. Somehow, despite all the mistakes she’d make, he [[cherished those days|End]].
He had wanted to be a mailman, so he took the letters, bills, and magazines from every mailbox on their street, and sorted them carefully on the cracked concrete by color. He hadn't known how to put it all back. He needed her help with that.\n\n[[Return|Mom]]
She rolled the vacuum out, unreeled the cord and plugged it into the wall. The shower sputtered in the bathroom, but when she flipped the switch, the roar of suction swallowed the fall of water. Crumbs, ash, bits of torn paper. It was all pulled into the vacuum's spinning brushes, leaving the carpet bare. Stained but clean. His [[guitar|Photograph 4]] lay propped against the sofa, so she moved it onto the cushions and [[vacuumed beneath|Brothers]]. \n \n[[“Mom...”|Mom]]
Sometimes they came.\n\n[[Return|Christmas Tree]]
“Fine I guess. You see him more than I do.”\n\n“Yeah. He was supposed to bring me a carton of [[cigarettes|Puffs of smoke]].”\n\n“I know. He called me. Something came up. He'll come next week, maybe take you out for Chinese.”\n\n“That sounds good,” Jacob said, but Beth wasn't sure if he had [[heard her.|Heard Her]]
Jacob wasn’t that different from Aaron, or either of his sisters. It scared Beth that the thoughts in a person’s head could determine whether they lived a full life or were locked away in a place where no one even bothered to clean the carpets. \n\nSchizophrenia. The word made her skin crawl the same now as it had thirty years ago. She couldn’t blame Jacob for hiding in this apartment. He couldn’t shut down the parts of himself that other people didn't want to see.\n\n[[Return|Right Place]]
The notes repeated once more, and then they changed, moving on. His fingers moved down the neck of the guitar, plucking dissonant tones. She could tell he was frustrated as he played. The strings snapped against the fret board and buzzed when he missed the spot he aimed for. Several times he started over, playing the original notes again and then moving on.\n\n[[Return|Fix]]
Her children would always have their mother near, no matter what they did. But she often wondered if anything could have been done had she admitted his flaws earlier instead of hiding them. Now she couldn’t help him at all.\n\n[[Return|Help]]
A psychiatric transition center. Jacob had been there for three years, and Beth wasn't sure what he was transitioning to. She'd lost hope that it would ever be home.\n\n[[Return|Start Again]]
Those words haunted Beth, and she couldn’t help blaming herself for his disease. She didn’t think she was a bad mother, but she had known something was wrong and done nothing to [[help him|Help]]. \n\nJacob was [[humming|Humming]] below his breath.
A few lay scattered on the table and floor. Gathering the [[stained filters|Photograph 5]] onto the tray first, she then dumped the whole mess into the empty trash can by the refrigerator. She wondered where Jacob put the vacuum cleaner. It usually sat in the center of his living room, the cord un-spooled and draped around its base like black spaghetti.\n\nWandering around his living room, she picked up clothes wadded on the floor and draped across the couch and coffee table, and then took them into the [[laundry room|Laundry Room]].
She knew how much he loved Christmas. Though he was thirty-seven now, he still begged his brothers and sisters to [[join him each December.|Siblings]]\n\nNoticing an unnatural bend to one of the branches, she crossed the room to pull it straight, and then adjusted the lazy loops of gold ribbon so they matched. The tree was dressed with the [[handmade decorations|Ornaments]] Jacob's brother and sisters made in elementary school. Jacob had collected these from dusty boxes in her attic and cleaned them. He missed those days, Beth knew, when the [[simplicity of childhood|Photograph 1]] was more than a memory. Before the disease that worked tirelessly to take even that away.\n\n[[“Mom?”|Jacob]]
“The woman from the Way Station, Marcy. She’s new.”\n\nJacob sat down on the hand-me-down easy chair by the television. He pulled a cigarette from her pack with [[nicotine-stained|Smoking]] fingers, and then the green lighter she kept in the empty space inside.\n\nBeth watched as Jacob lit the cigarette and then tucked it into the corner of his mouth. [[“How’s Dad?”|Dad]] he asked.
Jacob’s voice was so familiar, even now. That same pleading tone he had used as a child, two decades ago, when she found him in the garage, surrounded by piles of [[mail|Mail]].\n\n“Mom.” Jacob's hand was on her shoulder now. Beth jumped and fumbled for the vacuum's switch. When the noise was gone, silence and [[smoke filled the air|Smoke]].\n \n“Don't clean,” he said. He begged. [[“Please.”|Please]]
Beth loved the way vacuums pulled in all the filth and left nothing behind. Things were so much easier when the mess was hidden inside.\n\n[[Return|Laundry Room]]
“I’m here, Jacob,” she said. He was in the bathroom—clearing his throat, and then spitting into the sink. The faucet ran for a moment.\n\n“Give me a few,” he said through the closed door. “About to take a shower.”\n\nShe dropped her purse on his kitchen table, and it fell on its side. A [[pack of Parliaments|Photograph 2]] slid out with her compact mirror and checkbook. She remembered the new carton of cigarettes for Jacob, sitting on her kitchen table next to a tub of potato soup she made for him last week. He would be upset she forgot the cigarettes.\n\nA pizza tray sat on the counter, covered with crushed [[cigarette butts|Butts]].
Vacuum
Jacob was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was seventeen years old, but Beth had known something was wrong for far longer. He was different from his siblings, even the first moment she held him as an infant. So quiet, and his eyes so solemn. He was a fragile child, so she had protected him from everything, even his father.\n\n[[Return|Waiting]]
In the dream, Jacob’s head had been caught between two buildings, and she couldn’t get him out. The city was empty, so no one could help her. The morning after the dream, Jacob quietly ate his breakfast until she asked him what was wrong. \n\n“Why didn’t you [[help me?”|Help Me]] he said.
“I’ll bring the cigarettes tomorrow, and here, I’ll leave my pack for you now,” Beth said. \n\nJacob leaned over and pulled his guitar off the sofa, and then crossed his legs and balanced the instrument’s body over his thigh. He strummed the strings softly with the fingernails of his right hand, holding the pick between his lips. The guitar was badly off-pitch, so Jacob twisted the pegs. The instrument creaked and groaned as he adjusted it. Beth wasn’t sure what he was tuning to, and guessed he wasn’t either, but knowing something was off, he was trying to [[fix it|Fix]].
He was so much taller than her. She always forgot that. With her face pressed against his chest she squeezed as tightly as she could. He grunted, but she wanted to remember how he felt.\n\n[[Return|Here]]
Of letting her know that he wasn’t mad that she had forgotten the cigarettes, but she wanted to believe he forgave her for everything else as well. There were so many decisions she regretted. So many moments she wished she had told him what he needed to hear instead of shutting him out.\n\n[[Return|Fix]]
Beth remembered the night she realized he needed more help than she could give. The flashing lights lit the entire street. An ambulance, two fire trucks, and a horde of police cars. Jacob was on the roof. He was hanging off the drainpipe like a deranged King Kong and yelling that he was the second coming of Christ. She just wanted him to come down. The police pleaded with him over loudspeakers, but he wouldn’t stop and they had to come up after him. When the firemen dropped their ladders against the gutter, Jacob started to cry, and Beth could tell he was scared. He tried to climb higher, but slipped. Shingles scattered and Jacob laid belly down with his arms and legs spread. Some nights she still woke sweating and seeing his body crumbled on the driveway \n \nAaron and his new girlfriend pulled up as the firemen helped Jacob to the ground. Beth couldn’t imagine what was going through the girlfriend’s mind. It was the first time Aaron ever brought her home. Beth was hysterical, surrounded by police, and Jacob was being forced into a police car, screaming lines from the Sermon on the Mount as an officer tried to shut the door. [[Welcome to the family|Humming]].
The constant changes in the medication the doctors gave him caused him to gain and lose weight. Dark bags clung to the bottom lids of his eyes. But Beth saw her son beneath the drugs and disease, in the way he curled his fingers when he walked, and the sideways tilt of his eyes, like he was planning a prank. His teeth were yellowed and crooked, but his smile was the same as it had always been.\n\n[[Return|Please]]
He didn’t remember the things she told him very often. The doctors said it was a side effect of the lithium, or one of the other [[medications|Medications]].\n\nWhen she saw Jacob like this, transformed by the doctors and hospital into something he never wanted to be, she thought of a [[horrible dream|Nightmare]] she had when he was nine.\n
Stale cigarette smoke and the smell of unwashed clothes hung thick in the air.\n\n[[Return|Start Again]]
Each of the photos was [[labeled|Labels]] in Jacob’s tiny handwriting—sloppy, but deliberate. “You didn’t need to label all these, Jacob. I can always tell you about them if you forget.”\n\n“I don’t want to bother you.” He flipped to the next page, “Besides, I like to know for myself. The notes help me remember it all.”\n\n“I haven’t looked at these in years,” she said. The colors had faded the same way her memories often seemed to, so that the suit Aaron wore to his first school dance appeared green instead of blue, and his date was a girl Beth felt like she’d never seen. “Do you look at these often?” \n\n“Yeah—” he nodded and flipped the page “—mostly whenever I get lonely. I like remembering when we were kids. When the whole [[family|Family]] was together.”
Dec 25, 1975\n\nJacob unwrapping his first guitar. The look of surprise and joy on his face is imprinted on Beth's memory, but being able to hold that moment in her hands is wonderful.\n\n[[Return|Right Place]]
“Can’t Marcy bring them?” She regretted saying it immediately, but Jacob didn’t seem to notice the anger behind the words. When he took his last drag, Beth could smell the filter burn. He sighed as he stubbed out the butt in the ashtray and left it standing in the center.\n \nShe hated to make him [[wait|Waiting]].\n\n“The Way Station won’t buy me cigarettes. They’re bad for me.”\n\n“Maybe they know how to take care of you better than I do.”\n\n“No, but they do pretty well.” He pulled another cigarette from her pack and lit it, then twisted the other butt in the ashtray back and forth, crushing it into an accordion. They sat and [[smoked in silence|Smoked in Silence]].
Dec 24th, 1961\n\nThe entire family, smiling all at once. Jacob, a newborn, cradled in Beth's lap at the center of the frame.\n\n[[Return|End]]
Dec 25, 1965\n\nJacob laying on his stomach under the Christmas tree. Dressed in pajamas, head propped in both hands, staring intently at the toy train circling him.\n\n[[Return|Christmas Tree]]
Beth hated smoke. It became part of everything and never truly went away. Untangible, but impossible to forget.\n\n[[Return|Mom]]
Beth treasured the photographs she had of Jacob and Aaron. \n\nDec 24, 1962\n\nBeth, seated in an armchair, held them both. The older, Aaron, wriggling out of her arms toward a stack of presents as the younger slept with his head in the crook of her arm.\n\n[[Return|Marcy]]
The pitches fought each other on the way to her ears, each one pushing its way to the top, trying to pull the others into place. Jacob’s fingers moved and his mouth settled into a frown. He began to pick out notes one at a time, running up a scale and then back. He played a group of notes slowly, then again and again, faster each time.\n\n[[Return|Fix]]
At only eleven, he had set a car on fire. Just a junkyard car, but she should have known what it meant. She remembered holding his shaking body in her arms while John switched his brother for it. Beth had said nothing when Jacob whispered a confession through his tears. \n\nIf her husband had found out, he would have sent Jacob [[away|Away]], and Beth wouldn’t allow that.\n\n[[Return|Help Me]]
“Your dad and I used to fight like cats and dogs.”\n\n“Yeah, sometimes. Look, you’re happy [[here|Here]].”
Dec 18th, 1978\n\nJacob standing with his older brother beside Aaron's first car. Both are smoking cigarettes and doing their best to look nonchalant.\n\n[[Return|Butts]]
Strands of wet hair poked over his ears. That woman must have cut it, but not the way he liked it, with his bangs swooped across the corner of his forehead and long in the back. She wouldn't have left those hairs hanging there when all the rest was clipped. She would have gotten it right.\n\n[[Return|Please]]
She asked once why he smoked so much, and he said it passed the time. She couldn’t complain; she smoked for the same reason, but the coughs that shook his body seemed wrong. He was so [[young|Photograph 3]].\n\n[[Return|Marcy]]
His eyes were focused on the slow ring of fire that edged toward his fingers. Beth wondered if her son counted the hours in puffs of smoke now instead of minutes.\n\n[[Return|Dad]]
He laid the guitar against the sofa, but Beth noticed the [[pick|Pick]] on the table.\n\n“Thank you, Jacob. I loved it,” she said. He grinned, and she knew she would do anything she could to keep that look on his face. It would only take a few minutes to run down the street to the gas station for a carton of cigarettes. She could do that at least, even if she couldn’t do the rest. “I’m going to leave, but I’ll be back in a little while.”\n\n“You just got [[here|Here]].”
The steps leading to her son’s apartment were caked in mud, so Beth stepped carefully on the bare spots as she worked the car keys into her purse. She was [[late|Late]]. Beth hated being late, and hoped the nurse from the [[Way Station|Way Station]] wasn’t already there, bringing Jacob’s dinner or cleaning his apartment. The woman always seemed to [[show up|The Nurse]] when Beth was visiting, interrupting the time she spent with her son.\n\nThere was no answer at the door, so she let herself [[in|Inside]]. The curtains were closed and the only illumination was the slow flashing of Christmas lights. Jacob kept the fake tree, only a few feet tall, sitting on a table by his television. Year round, its cheery, flashing lights fought to hide the ash and stains that made patchwork of the carpet. Beth had [[bought the tree for him.|Christmas Tree]]
A sled constructed from tongue depressors. Santa Claus shaped from cotton balls and pipe cleaners. A sand dollar bleached white. She turned it over and read the permanent black marker inscription: “Merry Christmas, Aaron.”\n\n[[Return|Christmas Tree]]
Flipping open the washer door, she threw in the dirty clothes, poured in a cap of detergent, and started the cycle.\n\n[[The vacuum|Vacuum]] was tucked beside the dryer, cord neatly coiled. The nurse must have straightened up. That woman never really cleaned, not like Beth did. Jacob wasn’t her son—she didn’t care if the floor was spotless and the dishes washed and stacked carefully in the cupboards. Only a mother would put [[everything in its right place|Right Place]]. \n
travis megill
A tuneless dirge accompanied by his fingers tapping the edge of the table. Beth noticed a rash of tiny red cuts covering his throat and remembered that he got his hair cut today for her. They must have shaved him too. Maybe he asked. They did all the things she used to do for him. Took care of him because [[she couldn’t|Couldn't]] anymore.\n\nNow, they sat for a few moments in silence, and finally, when Beth could wait no longer, she reached for a cigarette. She hated to smoke in front of him. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she might have started his habit because then she would have to admit to everything else. She exhaled and waited for him to bring up the carton again. Some things he never forgot.\n\n“Hey, Mom? Could you get me some [[cigarettes?|Cigarettes]]”
Beth knew it was her job, that Jacob wasn't her son, but the nurse didn't seem to care enough. She never touched Jacob, never pushed the hair away from his eyes or squeezed his shoulder. The little things mattered.\n\n[[Return|Start Again]]