My Mother Rearranges Strangers’ Lives in the Dark

"None of That" from SEVEN EMPTY HOUSES by Samanta Schweblin, recommended by Lynn Steger Strong

Introduction by Lynn Steger Strong

A story, like a house, is limited in what it is able to contain by its need to be structurally sound, to hold just enough of a certain type of life so that we can feel the impact of its various parts. Samanta Schweblin is known for her ability to stretch and reconsider what story can hold, but it is also through her ability to hew right up next to the most elemental parts of life that her stories are able to feel so sharply true at the same time.

“None of That,” the first story in Schweblin’s newly translated collection Seven Empty Houses, is a master class in the many micro beats of subversion that makes Schweblin’s fiction so electric to be inside.

A mother and a daughter, driving in a wealthy neighborhood a half an hour from their own: “we’re looking at houses,” says the mother, when the daughter asks her why they’re there, except none of what you might think lives inside that statement happens here. “For as long as I can remember we’ve gone out to look at houses, removed unsuitable flowers and pots from their gardens. We’ve moved sprinklers, straightened mailboxes, relocated decorations that were too heavy for the grass.”

This day, the streets are muddy; the car gets stuck. A woman—mother to a young boy—comes out to see what the narrator and her mother are up to, their car stuck as it is in her yard. What follows is disorder and discomfort. Everybody’s sense of where and when and how to act has been destabilized. In a moment fascinatingly reminiscent of a scene in Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, the narrator’s mother lays her head on the steering wheel and begins to cry.

Schweblin has little interest in reasons or explanations. To say what any of these stories might be “about” is to undermine the thrillingly disjunctive experience of inhabiting the world Schweblin creates. Each beat is a process of seduction and destabilization: the world is just enough like ours, the yearnings and the miscues are just right, but then the actions, the situations, and the consequences continually surprise. The result is storytelling at its highest: specific and elusive, unpredictable and structurally sound at the same time.

– Lynn Steger Strong
Author of Want and Flight

My Mother Rearranges Strangers’ Lives in the Dark

None of That by Samanta Schweblin

We’re lost,” says my mother.

She brakes and leans over the steering wheel. Her fingers, slender and old, grip the plastic tightly. We’re over half an hour from home, in one of the residential neighborhoods we like the most. There are beautiful and spacious mansions here, but the roads are unpaved, and they’re muddy because it rained all last night.

“Did you have to stop right in the mud? How are we going to get out of here now?”

I open my door to see how deep the wheels are stuck. Pretty deep, deep enough. I slam my door.

“Just what is it you’re doing, Mom?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” Her confusion seems genuine.

I know exactly what it is we’re doing, but I’ve only just realized how strange it is. My mother doesn’t seem to understand, but she does respond, so she must know what I’m referring to.

“We’re looking at houses,” she says.

She blinks a couple of times; she has too much mascara on her eyelashes.

“Looking at houses?”

“Looking at houses.” She indicates the houses on either side of us.

They are immense. They gleam atop their hills of freshly mown lawns, shining in the dazzling light of the setting sun. My mother sighs, and without letting go of the wheel she leans back in the seat. She’s not going to say much more. Maybe she doesn’t know what else to say. But that is exactly what we do. Go out to look at houses. We go out to look at other people’s houses. Any attempt to figure out why could turn into the straw that breaks the camel’s back, confirmation of the fact that my mother has been throwing her own daughter’s time into the garbage for as long as I can remember. My mother shifts into first gear, and to my surprise the wheels spin for a moment but she manages to move the car forward. I look back at the intersection, the mess we made of the sandy dirt of the road, and I pray that no caretaker catches on that we did the same thing yesterday, two intersections down, and then again when we were nearly at the exit. We keep moving. My mother drives straight, without stopping in front of any of the mansions. She doesn’t comment on the huge windows or fancy doors, the hammocks or awnings. She doesn’t sigh or hum any song. She doesn’t jot down addresses. Doesn’t look at me. A few blocks down, the houses grow more spaced out and the grassy lawns flatten: carefully trimmed by gardeners and with no sidewalks in the way, they start right there at the dirt road and spread over the perfectly leveled terrain, like a mirror of green water flush with the earth. She takes a left and drives a little farther. She says aloud, but to herself:

“There’s no way out of this.”

There are some houses farther on, and then a forest closes in on the road.

“There’s a lot of mud,” I say. “Turn around without stopping the car.”

She looks at me with a frown, then pulls close to the grass on the right and tries to turn back the other way. The result is terrible: just as she manages to get the car in a vaguely diagonal position, she runs up against the grass on the left, and brakes.

“Shit,” she says.

She accelerates, and the wheels spin in the mud. I look back to study the scene. There’s a boy outside, almost on the threshold of the house behind us. My mother shifts gears, accelerates again, and manages to move in reverse. And this is what she does now: with the car in reverse, she drives across the street, goes into the yard in front of the boy’s house, and draws, from one side to the other across the wide blanket of freshly cut grass, a double-lined semicircle of mud. The car stops in front of the house’s picture window. The boy is standing there holding his plastic truck, transfixed. I raise my hand in a gesture that wants to apologize, or warn, but he drops the truck and runs into the house. My mother looks at me.

“Go,” I say.

The wheels spin and the car doesn’t move.

“Slowly, Mom!”

A woman pushes aside the window curtains and looks out at us, at her yard. The boy is next to her, pointing. The curtain closes again, and my mother sinks the car deeper and deeper. The woman comes out of the house and starts to walk over to us, but she doesn’t want to trample her grass. She takes the first steps along the path of varnished wood, then corrects course to come toward us, practically walking on tiptoe. My mother says shit again, under her breath. She lets off the accelerator, and also, finally, lets go of the steering wheel.

The woman reaches us and leans over to talk to us through the car window. She wants to know what we are doing in her yard, and she doesn’t ask nicely. The boy looks on, hugging one of the columns by the entrance. My mother says she’s sorry, she’s really very sorry, and she says it several times. But the woman doesn’t seem to hear. She just looks at her yard, at the wheels sunk into the lawn, and she repeats her question about what we’re doing there, why we are stuck in her yard, if we understand the damage we’ve just done. So I explain it to her. I say that my mother doesn’t know how to drive in the mud. That my mother is not well. And then my mother bangs her forehead into the steering wheel and stays like that, dead or paralyzed, who knows. Her back shudders and she starts to cry. The woman looks at me. She doesn’t know what to do. I shake my mother. Her forehead doesn’t move from the steering wheel, and her arms fall dead to her sides. I get out of the car, apologize to the woman again. She is tall and blond, brawny like the boy, and her eyes, nose, and mouth are too close together for the size of her head. She looks the same age as my mother.

“Who is going to pay for this?” she asks.

I don’t have any money, but I tell her we’ll pay for it. That I’m sorry and, of course, we will pay. That seems to calm her down. She turns her attention back to my mother for a moment, without forgetting about her yard.

“Ma’am, are you feeling okay? What were you trying to do?”

My mother raises her head and looks at the woman.

“I feel terrible. Call an ambulance, please.”

The woman doesn’t seem to know whether my mother is being serious or pulling her leg. Of course she is serious, even if the ambulance isn’t necessary. I shake my head at the woman to say she should wait and not make any calls. The woman takes a few steps back, looks at my mother’s old, rusty car, and then at her astonished son behind her. She doesn’t want us to be here, she wants us to disappear, but she doesn’t know how to make that happen.

She doesn’t want us to be here, she wants us to disappear, but she doesn’t know how to make that happen.

“Please,” says my mother, “could you bring me a glass of water before the ambulance gets here?”

The woman is slow to move, she seems not to want to leave us alone in her yard.

“Okay,” she says.

She walks away, grabs the boy by the shirt, and pulls him inside with her. The front door slams shut.

“Could you please tell me what you’re doing, Mom? Get out of the car, I’m going to try to move it.”

My mother sits up straight in the seat, moves her legs slowly as she starts to get out. I look around for medium-sized logs or some rocks to use as ramps for the wheels, but everything is so neat and tidy. There’s nothing but lawn and flowers.

“I’m going to look for some wood,” I tell my mother, pointing toward the forest at the end of the street. “Don’t move.”

My mother, who was in the process of getting out of the car, freezes a moment and then drops back into her seat. I’m worried because night is falling, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the car out in the dark. The forest is only two houses away. I walk into the trees, and it takes a few minutes to find exactly what I need. When I get back, my mother is not in the car. There’s no one outside. I approach the front door of the house. The boy’s truck is lying on the doormat. I ring the doorbell and the woman comes to open the door.

“I called the ambulance,” she says. “I didn’t know where you were, and your mother said she was going to faint again.”

I wonder when the first time was. I walk in carrying the pieces of wood. I have two, the size of two bricks. The woman leads me to the kitchen. We walk through two spacious, carpeted living rooms, and then I hear my mother’s voice.

“Is this white marble? How do they get white marble? What does your daddy do, sweetheart?”

She’s sitting at the table, a mug in one hand and the sugar bowl in the other. The boy is sitting across from her, looking at her.

“Let’s go,” I tell her, showing her the wood.

“Look at the design of this sugar bowl,” says my mother, pushing it toward me. But when she sees I’m unimpressed, she adds, “I really do feel very bad.”

“That one’s for decoration,” says the boy. “This is our real sugar bowl.”

He pushes a different, wooden sugar bowl toward my mother. She ignores him, stands up, and, as if she were about to vomit, leaves the kitchen. I follow her resignedly. She locks herself in a small bathroom off the hallway. The woman and her son look at me but don’t follow. I knock on the door, ask if I can come in, and wait. The woman peers at us from the kitchen.

“They say the ambulance will be here in fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks,” I say.

The bathroom door opens. I go in and close it behind me. I put the wood down beside the mirror. My mother is crying, sitting on the toilet lid.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

Before answering she folds a bit of toilet paper and blows her nose.

“Where do people get all these things? And did you see there’s a staircase on either side of the living room?” She rests her face in the palms of her hands. “It makes me so sad I just want to die.”

There’s a knock at the door and I remember the ambulance is on its way. The woman asks if we’re all right. I have to get my mother out of this house.

“I’m going to get the car out,” I say, picking the wood up again. “I want you out there with me in two minutes. You’d better be there.”

The woman is in the hall talking on a cell phone, but she sees me and hangs up.

“It’s my husband, he’s on his way.”

I wait for an expression that will tell me whether the man is coming to help my mother and me, or to help the woman get us out of the house. But the woman just stares at me, taking care not to give me any clues. I go outside and walk to the car, and I can hear the boy running behind me. I don’t say anything as I prop the wood under the wheels and look around to see where my mother could have left the keys. Then I start the car. It takes several tries, but finally the ramp trick works. I close the car door, and the boy has to run so I don’t hit him. I don’t stop, I retrace the semicircular tracks back to the road. She’s not going to come out on her own, I tell myself. Why would she listen to me and come out of the house like a normal mother? I turn off the car and go inside to get her. The boy runs behind me, hugging the muddy pieces of wood.

I enter without knocking and head straight for the bathroom.

“She’s not in the bathroom anymore,” says the woman. “Please, get your mother out of the house. This has gone too far.”

She leads me to the second floor. The staircase is spacious and light, and a cream-colored rug marks the way. The woman goes up first, blind to the muddy footprints I leave on each step. She points to a room with the door half open, and I go in without opening it all the way, in order to maintain a semblance of privacy. My mother is lying facedown on the carpet in the middle of the master bedroom. The sugar bowl is on the dresser, along with her watch and bracelets, which for some reason she has taken off. Her arms and legs are splayed wide, and for a moment I wonder if there is any other way to hug a thing as massive as a house, and if that is in fact what my mother is trying to do. She sighs and then sits up on the floor, smooths her shirt and her hair, looks at me. Her face is less red now, but the tears made a mess of her makeup.

“What’s going on now?” she asks.

“The car’s ready. We’re leaving.”

I peer outside to get a sense of what the woman is doing, but I don’t see her.

“And what are we going to do with all of this?” asks my mother, gesturing around herself. “Someone has to talk to these people.”

“Where’s your purse?”

“Downstairs, in the living room. The first living room, because there’s a bigger one that looks out onto the pool, and another one past the kitchen, facing the backyard. There are three living rooms.” My mother takes a tissue from her jeans pocket, blows her nose, and dries her tears. “Each one for something different.”

She gets up holding on to a bedpost and walks toward the en suite bathroom.

The bed is made with a fold in the top sheet that I’ve only ever seen my mother make. Under the bed are a balled-up bedspread with fuchsia and yellow stars and a dozen small throw pillows.

“Mom, my god, did you make the bed?”

“Don’t even get me started on those pillowcases,” she says, and then, peering out from behind the door to be sure I hear: “And I want to see that sugar bowl when I come out of the bathroom. Don’t you do anything crazy.”

“What sugar bowl?” asks the woman from the other side of the bedroom door. She knocks three times but doesn’t dare enter. “My sugar bowl? Please, it was my mother’s.”

From the bathroom comes the sound of water running in the tub. My mother goes over to the bedroom door and for a second I think she’s going to let the woman in, but instead she closes it and starts gesturing to me to keep my voice down, that the faucet is running so no one can hear us. This is my mother, I tell myself, while she opens the dresser drawers and pushes aside the clothes to inspect the bottoms, making sure the wood inside is also cedar. For as long as I can remember, we’ve gone out to look at houses, removed unsuitable flowers and pots from their gardens. We’ve moved sprinklers, straightened mailboxes, relocated lawn ornaments that were too heavy for the grass. As soon as my feet reached the pedals, I started to take over driving, which gave my mother more freedom. Once, by herself, she moved a white wooden bench and put it in the yard of the house across the street. She unhooked hammocks. Yanked up malignant weeds. Three times she pulled off the name “Marilú 2” from a terribly cheesy sign. My father found out about one or another of these events, but I don’t think that was why he left my mother. When he went, my father took all his things except the car key, which he left on one of the piles of my mother’s home and garden magazines, and for some years after that she almost never got out of the car on any of our excursions. She’d sit in the passenger seat and say “That’s kikuyu,” “That bow window is not American,” “The cascading geranium flowers should not be beside the spotted lady’s thumb,” “If I ever decide to paint the house that shade of pearl pink, please, hire someone to just shoot me.” But it was a long time before she got out of the car again. Today, however, she has crossed a big line. She insisted on driving. She contrived to get us inside this house, into the master bedroom, and now she’s just come back from the bathroom after dumping two jars of salts into the tub, and she’s starting to throw some products from the dressing table into the trash. I hear a car pull up, and I peek out the window that overlooks the backyard. It’s almost night now, but I see them. He’s getting out of the car and the woman is already walking toward him. Her left hand is holding the little boy’s, her right hand working double-time making gestures and signals. He nods in alarm, looks toward the second floor. He sees me, and when he sees me, I realize that we have to move fast.

She contrived to get us inside this house, into the master bedroom, and now she’s just come back from the bathroom after dumping two jars of salts into the tub.

“We’re leaving, Mom.”

She’s removing the hooks from the shower curtain, but I take them from her hand and throw them to the floor, grab her by the wrist, and push her toward the stairs. It’s pretty violent; I have never treated my mother like this. A new fury drives me toward the door. My mother follows, tripping on the stairs. The pieces of wood are at the foot of the steps and I kick them as I pass. We reach the living room, I pick up my mother’s purse, and we go out the front door.

Once we’re in the car, as we’re reaching the corner, I think I see the lights of another car pulling out of the house’s driveway and turning in our direction, following us. I reach the first muddy intersection at full speed as my mother says:

“What kind of madness was all that?”

I wonder if she’s referring to my part or hers. In a gesture of protest, my mother buckles her seat belt. Her purse is on her lap and her fists close tight around its handles. I tell myself, Now, you calm down, you calm down, you calm down. I check the rearview mirror for the other car but don’t see anyone. I want to talk to my mother, but I can’t help yelling at her.

“What are you looking for, Mom? What is all of this?”

She doesn’t even move. She stares straight ahead, serious, her forehead terribly furrowed.

“Please, Mom, what is it? What the hell are we doing at other people’s houses?”

An ambulance siren wails in the distance.

“Do you want one of those living rooms? Is that what you want? Those marble countertops? The damned sugar bowl? Those useless kids? Is that it? What the fuck are you missing from those houses?”

I pound the steering wheel. The ambulance siren sounds closer and I dig my nails into the plastic. Once, when I was five years old and my mother cut all the calla lilies from a garden, she forgot me and left me sitting against the fence, and she didn’t have the guts to come back for me. I waited a long time, until I heard the shouts of a German woman who came out of the house brandishing a broom, and I ran. My mother was circling the house in a two-block radius, and it took us a long time to find each other.

“None of that,” says my mother, keeping her gaze forward, and that’s the last thing she says during the whole drive.

A few blocks ahead, the ambulance turns toward us and then hurtles past.

We get home half an hour later. We drop our things on the table and kick off our muddy sneakers. The house is cold, and from the kitchen I watch my mother skirt the sofa, go into the bedroom, sit down on her bed, and reach over to turn on the radiator. I put the kettle on for tea. This is what I need right now, I tell myself, a little tea, and I sit beside the stove to wait. As I’m putting the tea bag into the mug, the doorbell rings. It’s the woman, the owner of the house with three living rooms. I open the door and stand looking at her. I ask how she knows where we live.

“I followed you,” she says, looking down at her shoes.

She has a different attitude now, more fragile and patient, and though I open the screen door to let her in, she can’t seem to bring herself to take the first step. I look both ways down the street, but I don’t see any car a woman like her could have driven here.

“I don’t have the money,” I say.

“No,” she says, “don’t worry, I didn’t come for that. I . . . is your mother here?”

I hear the bedroom door close. It’s a loud slam, but maybe it’s hard to hear from outside.

I shake my head. She looks down at her shoes again and waits.

“Can I come in?”

I point her to a chair at the table. On the brick-tiled floor, her heels make a noise different from our heels, and I see her move carefully: the spaces of this house are more cramped, and the woman doesn’t seem to feel at ease. She leaves her bag on her crossed legs.

“Would you like some tea?”

She nods.

“Your mother . . . ” she says.

I hand her a hot mug and I think, Your mother is in my house again. Your mother wants to know how I pay for the leather upholstery on all my sofas.

“Your mother took my sugar bowl,” says the woman.

She smiles almost apologetically, stirs her tea, looks at it, but doesn’t drink it.

“It seems silly,” she says, “but of all the things in the house, that’s all I have left of my mother, and . . . ” She makes a strange sound, almost like a hiccup, and her eyes fill with tears. “I need that sugar bowl. You have to give it back.”

We sit a moment in silence. She avoids my eyes. I glance out at the backyard and I see her, I see my mother, and then I distract the woman to keep her from looking out there, too.

“You want your sugar bowl?” I ask.

“Is it here?” asks the woman, and she immediately stands up, looks at the kitchen counter, the living room, the bedroom door nearby.

But I can’t stop thinking about what I’ve just seen: my mother kneeling on the ground under the clothes hanging on the line, putting the sugar bowl into a fresh hole in the earth.

“If you want it, find it yourself,” I say.

The woman stares at me, takes several seconds to absorb what I’ve just said. Then she sets her purse on the table and walks slowly away. She seems to have trouble moving between the couch and the TV, between all the towers of stackable boxes, as if no place were good enough to start her search. That’s how I realize what it is that I want. I want her to look. I want her to move our things. I want her to inspect, set aside, and take apart. To remove everything from the boxes, to trample, rearrange, to throw herself on the ground, and also to cry. And I want my mother to come inside. Because if my mother comes in here right now, if she composes herself quickly after her newest burial and comes back to the kitchen, she’ll be relieved to see how this is done by a woman who doesn’t have her years of experience, or a house where she can do these kinds of things well, the way they should be done.

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