by Jac Smith
It cost thirteen dollars to gut Mother. I use a knife, but don’t know where her insides end up. They are likely seeping into the Nevada pavement somewhere between the hotel and Reno International. The drunks coming home from the casinos will carry bits of her on their shoes. The big rigs will gather her up in their deep treads, take her north on the 580. Truckee River may even get lucky. By morning she will be in every crevice and corner of Reno until one good rain storm settles her deep inside the sewers. Deflate this city with a good hard puncture, rip it open and turn it inside out; the flakey film that coats the underbelly is one part sugar, one part Mother. Eve will say to cut it out, to stop thinking this way in regard to her. That my thoughts are too exaggerated, too large, too scary and untrue yet all of this starts because of her. It starts with Mother and I in Croatia, where we are intact and happy and whole. It starts when my sister calls.
It’s been thirteen months since I’ve last seen my sister, Eve. I’ve broken our contract and she is demanding I come home for the yearly exchange of our mother which, like always, I am putting off. Either direction. I want more time with Mother and I want more time without. To get along with Mother requires a very specific headspace, but once I slip into it, onto it, right beneath it — she’s hard to give up. It’s this condensed feeling, the one I get with Mother. If I lay on my back and pull my knees up, my spine feels especially heavy. Heavy and dense and like some good cold thing. It’s an iced tea cold, the kind you buy from people who are paid to smile hard and smile early which, according to Mother, is the kind you want and since I’m into onto beneath, I agree.
Eve gets tired of leaving voicemails. Her kids take turns giving various warnings against me keeping their grandmother over the allocated time. There’s a little one and maybe a medium one but it’s the older one, twelve I think, who fills my inbox with long formidable pauses. I can hear him flip through his spelling workbook; he drops bombs like catastrophic and detrimental and absurd.
I book us a flight home.
40,000 feet in the air and Mother tells me she doesn’t want to go back to Eve. Which is unfair since she knows about the contract. And while isn’t anything legal, doesn’t involve Mother’s consent at all and my signature is that of a nineteen year old’s with the curlicues to prove it — it still stands. The longer I have Mother, the more fervent Eve becomes in demanding us home. Mother and I laugh at that. We nod and curl up and whisper things and even if it’s catastrophic detrimental absurd, it’s also into onto beneath and there is room, I decide, for both.
We fly into Reno-Tahoe International right in the middle of the day. A taxi takes us to our hotel which is not the nicest one in Reno but it is the nicest one just outside of the city and only forty miles north of Jawbreak, my hometown.
Once we’re checked into our room, I heave my suitcase onto the bed. Underneath every piece of clothing I own are two Ziplocs, hefty-sized. Mother moves to the corner of the room, tucks herself into an overstuffed chair and soon she’s silent and in that space between sleep and not and since that’s the home of lucid dreams and feeling capable and having power, I let her enjoy it. I open the Ziploc that holds a clean, black, high-neck shirt and a nice pair of fitted pants that are made up of something that doesn’t wrinkle.
I can’t keep Mother any longer, I know this. The knowing is inside of me, in my stomach, and it’s being sucked upward and collecting at the top of my guts, high-like and not where it should be. It’s making me want to grab Mother and get back on a plane. But it’s also making me want to drop Mother off right now in some alley while I run away. A long stride, thighs tightening, arms pumping, chest hurting thing⎯ that’s what I want.
Tonight we will meet my sister for the exchange at The Stampede, the only bar in Jawbreak. My worst thoughts happen there; the decor and furniture and people a revolving backdrop in most of my nightmares. There will be a singing Elvis doll that sits on the table we consider ours. It’s a true collectable, licensed and authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated and has the official Elvis Presley Enterprises Incorporated logo on its box. The certificate of authenticity is framed and hangs above where the doll stands in its box, on the side of the table pushed up against the wall. Only 61,000 Produced! is what the certificate says. I know it does because I’ve read it. Top to bottom, ten times, each reading a year apart.
The doll goes off every time someone sits down at the table. Middle of conversation, middle of summer and Elvis starts crooning “Blue Christmas” while his hips grind against cardboard and plastic. There are beer stains on the box and part of me wants to steal the thing and sell it on eBay and the other part of me wants to pull it out and maybe hold it a bit.
It’s the Only 61,000 Produced! that’s especially weird. It seems like a lot. But the exclamation point that comes after the statement is what teachers call a context clue and it makes me think I don’t know shit about collectables or Elvis or something like worth.
The doll pops up in my dreams where it doesn’t belong. If I’ve had Mother with me longer than I should, catastrophic detrimental absurd, he pops up outside of my dreams as well. He’ll stand right next to me while I work, while I survey whatever new water supply in whatever new country I’ve been hired to diagnose. I’m in Croatia or South Africa or Indonesia squatting over some town’s main water source and that wicked little King starts crooning “Blue Christmas.” Every time he pauses his lips pout at me from across the watering hole.
Even if Elvis decides not to wage a war at the bar tonight, still there will be other concerns. Always, I will run into some boy I grew up along side of and because at some point I let him see me naked, he will think it permissible to bring up what happened with Mother or maybe even what happened at my high school graduation. It’s what The Stampede has always offered⎯ clearance to grind thumbs into wounds.
Before The Stampede became base camp for the yearly hand-off of Mother, it was my father’s place. He went to The Stampede every day after work even though he quit drinking before I was born. As far as I knew, he never went inside, just smoked cigarettes out front with a few patrons before heading home. He carried a whole layer of pride about being a recovering alcoholic and would make a point to serve Mother a glass of wine with dinner on Friday nights just so Eve and I had some example of responsible alcohol consumption. He always said it just like that, those three words and his gaze was pointed, first at Eve and then at me. And in the space where his stare would jump from my sister and start to come my way, I would force my eyes wide so he would see me bold and unblinking. Booze wasn’t the problem, he told us. It was his brain with booze that was the problem. Keep your eyes on the things that scare you most so that they scare you less, he always said to Eve. Said that part to her and not me but I was listening anyways.
* * *
The Stampede has a heavy-weighted wooden door that takes a good strong shoulder and a good bracing leg to open. Mother and I arrive and I handle the door exactly as I’m supposed to. Still, it clips my elbow on the back swing and hip-checks me before it slams back into place. The door is, no doubt, the most expensive thing in this place. Later, I’ll crush the glass that holds the fire extinguisher and hatchet and hack down the door on my way out. I’ll pocket the real brass hinges and sell all of it along with Elvis for hundreds of dollars. I settle at the thought, push my satchel more firmly onto my shoulder and take Mother and I straight to the bar top.
The Stampede is made up of honey-colored oak paneling. Every surface is coated in the stuff, the grade alignment not once considered. The ceiling, floors, walls and tables are all bathed in a lamination of cheap gloss finish that makes it feel like a wraparound bowling lane.
I haven’t sold Elvis or the hinges just yet so I order the cheapest beer they have on tap. I don’t order one for Mother because I’m not Dad and she’s allowed to make her own choices regarding responsible alcohol consumption. Besides, Clive Tisdale is four bar stools down from us so I leave Mother with my satchel and head on over.
Clive, who we called Bear in high school because he was this big broad thing but unfortunately is now just normal-sized, has got his elbow on the bar and his back to me.
“Hey Bear,” I say.
He turns to face me since I poked his back. “Lucy, hi,” he says. “You look good.”
I sit, thank him and he nods back. Always was a nodder. Would nod to just about anything I said to him, asked of him, did to him. Which meant I did most everything first with Bear. First person I stole my father’s chewing tobacco for, first person I skipped class with, went swimming in the drainage canal with, stayed out all night with. Asked him to kiss me when we were fourteen. Asked him if he wanted to see me naked and do other things pretty much right after that. He just nodded and nodded and then I’d go ahead and do it.
Even during graduation when I flashed my naked chest to the entire population of Jawbreak, snatched up my temporary diploma and lit the thing on fire with my rainbow-colored Bic — there was Bear with his big shoulders, sitting in his folding chair, holding his intact piece of paper, nodding.
It was a little impulsive, the thing at graduation. I get it; it was weird. But I was eighteen, proud of my pale breasts and also unaware of what being in Mother’s presence for thirteen months or longer did to me. Also, I didn’t know that I’d have to wait two weeks for the real diploma to arrive in the mail which meant I couldn’t catch a plane right after the ceremony, robe and tassel hat still on, which was something I had been fantasizing about for a good long while. So, I was pissed.
“You here with Eve?” Bear asks, like I can’t just be here on my own.
“I’m here with my mother,” I say as I pour a little bit of beer down my throat and watch Bear watch me.
“How’s the family?” I ask, eyeing his wedding ring.
“Oh you know, the same. We got another one on the way. Hill’s real excited, boy this time. How long you in town for?”
“Just the night. Same as always,” I say. “Congratulations on the kid.”
I thump his average shoulders with my palm, laugh a little, and try to do that thing my dad was always doing⎯ pounding on my shoulders with his giant man hand in a way that was encouraging and painful all at once. I tell him I’ve got to go before he can tell me the same and then I spin around on my barstool, take in the people I grew up with, see that some are noticing me but none as much as I’m noticing them.
My back is turned on Bear so he no longer exists which is this thing a colleague of mine once said while sprawled out underneath Botswana skies. He told me things only existed if you were looking at them. Once you turned your back on whatever was there, it stopped Being. Being, as in capital B, Being. He wasn’t joking but I laughed anyways, right before getting real creeped out and whipping around to see if the world was still there. I turn my back on the bear now though and the move makes me pure and strong and confident and I look at the front door to see if it’s intimidated.
Instead, I see Eve.
She’s already looking at me once my eyes get to her eyes and we just sort of stare at each other for a second before she slings her head in the direction of our table. I spot Elvis where he always is, sandwiched between the sugar caddy and the napkin holder.
I glance over to where I left Mother but see only my satchel.
I mean to hold up a finger to Eve like, give me a minute. I’ll finish my beer, make Eve and Elvis wait while I banish them from this world with my turned back. I’ll collect myself, become Lucy that is not into onto beneath, slide off this stool and saunter over. Instead, I just grab my satchel, smooth my wrinkle-less pants and go.
When I get to the table Eve is signaling to the bartender for a beer of her own while I inch the first half of my first thigh in while keeping my weight steady so as not to set the doll off when I sit. That’s when Eve starts talking.
“You brought her right?”
I pause, ass still hanging off the booth and look at my sister. “Nice to see you too.”
“Sorry,” she says and I slide all the way in.
Elvis keeps his trap shut.
Eve sees me looking at him and rolls her eyes before I can do something like reach out and touch the doll’s hips. “Where you coming back from this time?” she asks as her drink is delivered.
I reach for Eve’s beer and pull it towards myself. “Croatia,” I say, then hold her glass up. “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and I drink. “It’s a new International Flooding Initiative. They need hydrologists.”
“Is that still with the UN?” she asks.
I nod. It isn’t.
“And Croatia is in danger of flooding?” She takes her beer back.
“You do know where Croatia is, right?”
My sister sighs, practiced and narrowed, slides the glass back to me.
“How are things with the kids?” I ask, my hands sliding up and down her glass.
The last time I saw her kids was a few years back. By accident. Ran into them at a WinCo the night before we were to meet up. I had a bottle of wine tucked into each armpit when I heard the little one bellowing for fruit roll-ups. It was Mother’s last night with Eve but she wasn’t even with them.
“They’re fine,” Eve says, waves her hand in front of her chest, pushes the air there out of the way. “Moving on?”
I tap the glass against my teeth and then reach down to my satchel which is next to me on the booth. I open the flap and use both hands to yank the other gallon-sized Ziploc out.
I set Mother down on the table with a thud.
Elvis starts singing.
My sister slumps forward a bit, puts her elbows on the table, her face in her hands. It’s the closest either of us has gotten to a prayer-like position around Mother. “A Ziploc, Lucy? Really?” I can barely hear her over “Blue Christmas.” Eve stares at Mother, her eyes on her even as she asks her next question. “What happened to the urn?”
“Getting her through customs was a bitch,” I say. Elvis breaks into the throaty part of the song and I notice for the first time a small tear at the top of Mother’s bag, right beneath the double zipper. “Besides, Mom likes the idea of fitting into a Ziploc. Efficient.” The edges of the tear are jagged, like it got caught on something. I wonder if there’s some spilled Mother in the bottom of my bag. Ultra-strong and durable, hefty Ziploc my ass.
“Mother wasn’t efficient,” Eve says.
I don’t say anything. If there is one real rule between us it’s that we don’t discuss who Mother was and who Mother is. Mother felt like shit when Eve and I were still kids so she chased eighteen Vicodin tablets with a Starbuck’s Venti iced tea.
“What did you do with it?” Eve asks and I rotate Mother so that the tear is facing me and not Eve, dip my finger in just a bit to touch her. “Luce, stop it.”
I snap my hand back. “Hm?”
“The urn. What did you do with it?”
The King finishes his song, his hips frozen in a harsh left thrust. I reach out for Mother again. She’s right there and visible and it’s hard not to. I prop her up a bit, even her out so she doesn’t slouch over and spill onto the sticky floor. My palms fall onto the bulk of her, my fingers squeeze together as the heels of my hands sink down. Even through the plastic I can still feel the individual granules of her. I bring my fingers up like a tee-pee. A tee-pee on a sandbank. Then I answer the question, “tossed it at security.”
* * *
I was eleven when Mother committed suicide. The most spectacular part of the story was that she committed suicide. It turned out to be a fucked up brain chemistry thing which meant when people asked why, we were just left with, it happened. Nothing bad came before, the actual thing wasn’t messy and no one meaningful found her. We didn’t see it coming but Dad always said that was because we didn’t have her brain and it was a stupid question for people to ask us anyways. She did it in her car in the middle of summer. Eve and I were at swim camp and Dad was at work and by the time the police found her, parked in a thirty minute only zone, we hadn’t even missed her yet.
Dad had her cremated and Eve said we should spread the ashes somewhere nice like the mountains or in the empty lot at the end of the cul-de-sac. I said that I wanted to keep her and Dad just said, okay.
So I did.
The first day of sixth grade I put Mother, urn and all, into my backpack and I took her to school with me. The kids in my grade made a big deal over never mentioning their own moms but mostly I think they just felt scared to be near me and mostly I just felt like the heavy weight of Mother, bouncing against my lower back, was nice.
A year later Eve noticed the dark purple bruise at the top of my tailbone, went looking for evidence and put an end to it.
“You’re keeping her in your backpack?”
We’d been home from school for an hour and I was coming back from the kitchen with a paper plate of tortilla strips and melty cheese, when I found her in my room, crouched over my unzipped bag, pointing.
“Well, yeah,” I said because that’s what Eve was looking at.
“Lucy, you can’t do this.”
Eve had that tone infused into her voice that meant I was embarrassing her. Like everything I did was designed to fuck with her precious high school social standing which was pretty much already in the toilet due to Mom up and off-ing herself.
“You’re a shitty freshmen, Eve,” I told her, feeling the newly discovered power of curse words on my tongue. “Nobody gives a bullshit what your little sister is doing with her dead mom.”
Eve ignored my singular ownership over Mother, something I did so she’d yell at me and I could shout the word “Mom” at her and she could shout the word “Mom” back and we could be kids that didn’t have to learn how not to use that word.
Instead she went with, “Nobody gives a bullshit?” She smirked at me and it had some kind of instant charge that turned my cheeks bright red. “That’s not even how you use it, dumb ass.”
“Get out of my room!”
“No,” she shouted, then pointed a finger at Mom. “This is bullshit. Keep her under your bed or on your bookshelf like a freakin’ normal person.”
“I’ll do whatever I want! Dad said so. He gave her to me.”
“She’s our mom, Luce! You don’t own her.” Eve reached into my backpack and grabbed Mother, pulled her out and held the white heavy ceramic in both hands.
I flew towards her then. “Don’t you dare take her!” Ready to punch Eve in her stupid nose if she even tried to get out of my room with the urn. Eve, four years older and already tall like a total giant just put her hand out and pushed my shoulder down so I was forced to my knees. She was out the door and in the hallway by the time I stood up and sprinted after her.
“I’m putting her here!” Eve declared, looked at the shelves that were scattered along the hallway and were too far up the wall for me to reach. They were full of picture of us all smiley and vacationy and before.
“Eve, please.” I reached up and wrapped my hands in Eve’s shirt, pulled like I was five and she was Mom and wouldn’t pick me up. “I’ll keep her in my room. I promise. I promise,” I said, the words frantic and rushed and I pushed them out as fast as I could. I’d known Eve my entire life so I really knew her and I knew once she set Mother down, took her hands off and stood back, she wouldn’t change her mind.
Which is what she did. She removed her hands and I wailed.
Eve looked down at me then and I was crying hard but my eyes were wide and trying to see her and for a moment Eve’s face did this thing it rarely ever did. It opened and it softened and she put her hand on my face, right on it, half on my cheek and half on my nose and a bit on one eyelid. It was this containing grip on my face, like she was trying to hold all of my emotion on it and also like maybe she was trying to stop it from spreading.
“Lucy,” she said, “this is for the best.”
She let go of me then and I went all the way down. My face was heavy and hot and on the floor as I kept yelling but she walked behind me and away. “You’re bullshit Eve,” I shouted, mouth laden and open and the taste of carpet fibers on my tongue.
* * *
“I’ll get a new urn,” Eve says as she looks at my hands which are still poised over Mother’s sternum.
“You won’t,” I say. “We all know you won’t.”
“She’s dead, Luce!” Eve slaps her thighs with open palms, eyes wide and mouth pinched. “This isn’t her.” She points at Mother like she’s not the thing that birthed us and soothed our faces and explained how the red lights on our side of the freeway were brake lights and the white lights on the other side of the freeway were head lights and how all cars had both and we weren’t on teams or anything like that. She smacks at my hands with the backs of hers but I pull Mother closer to me and hunch forward to protect her from the onslaught.
“Fuck,” Eve says, sits further back into the booth as I slide Mother off the table but keep her on the bench next to me, close and tucked into my hip. I run a hand flat along the table, the little seeped out trail of Mother sticking to my palm. I pull the zippy part of her bag open just enough for it to pucker up.
“You’re really losing it, aren’t you?” Eve asks.
I dust my palm. The hefty Ziploc promise comes true when I hear the seal stick together as I zip Mother up. I scoot a little bit closer to the cold heaviness at my hip and look back up at Eve. “It has been thirteen months,” I say.
Eve looks stricken for a moment, but then the moment passes and her face still looks like that, all worried and scared. Scared for me but also like she’s scared for all the fucked-up family genes that are probably swirling around inside her kids too.
“Seen Dad lately?” I ask.
Eve shakes her head, tells me she doesn’t want to talk about Dad and it occurs to me for the first time how maybe this thing I’ve got with Mother, this into onto beneath is somehow like the thing Eve has with Dad. This big something that feels like so much rage and anger that it exceeds its limit, has nowhere to go and so it loops straight back around into love. When Mom swallowed those pills it did something to me, put something in me that I could never push aside, grow past, bury. That wasn’t the thing that gutted Eve. It was Dad and it was the booze that u-turned its way back into his life, gripped the sides of his face and pulled him permanently under. For years I woke up in the middle of the night to Eve screaming at him, telling his slumped form and glassy eyes that he had to do something, fix something, try something. That he had to stare at the scary. Which was me. Which he didn’t. Which meant Eve had to.
“Lucy, listen,” Eve finally says, grabs my sticky hands and slides them to the middle of the table with hers on top, pressing down until all four hands are just one thing. “I’ll get something nice, okay. A nice urn, I promise.”
I don’t know what to say so I give the Elvis papers their due and when I’m done, Eve is still there and our hands are still one mass. I focus hard until I feel her hands separate from mine, still pressed together and on top, but not all the same thing. Hers are rigid and flexed and when I look up her face is impassive. She always did store the worst of her thoughts in her hands. I know her and I will not let her be the one to remove her hands first, step back from me and watch me wail.
“No,” I say.
She starts in but I slide my hands out from underneath hers. I gather Mother up and slip her back into my satchel. I spit carpet fibers from my tongue.
“She stays with me,” I say, standing up and not even giving Elvis a cursory glance. “You can’t take her from me. I won’t allow it.”
“Lucy,” Eve says. “Stop this. She wouldn’t want this for you.”
But that is where my sister is wrong. She doesn’t know how Mother loves the heat of the Gobi desert and the skyline of Israel. She doesn’t know how Mother is no longer the woman that was always only half happy and who was always only half listening. She doesn’t know that she has become this new other mother who never pulls her hands away and never steps back after she has done something unspeakable, but who instead steps closer and leans in more and is always, always there.
I am wanting to tell her that, but I don’t know how so I am silent.
Eve asks if I remember what Dad always said.
“About the staring at the scary?”
She shakes her head. “About the booze and his brain.”
“It isn’t the booze and it isn’t the brain, but the booze and the brain, together,” I parrot.
I hate her.
“Goodbye, Eve,” I say, ready to be out of The Stampede and ready to be out of Jawbreak. She tries to say one more thing, but I am giving my farewell nods to both Elvis and the door hinges⎯ I won’t be back for them. I face my sister one last time and offer her a small grin. We will never agree on this and that is a truth we both know. I turn my back on her and leave.
The second I do she is gone. My colleague was right⎯ it is absolute.
* * *
When Mother and I get back to the hotel I call up room service and order us steak. While we wait, I change our flight to a red-eye for tonight. The man who delivers our dinner has on a double-breasted coat lined with brass buttons, twin trails that are the guardrails for his insides. He is sewn in tight from pelvis to chin and I ask him if he is married.
He tells me yes. I have approached him from the side, have run my strong palm down his leg and squeezed his ankle. He is a horse and his hoof comes up as quickly as his answer.
“I like these,” I say, my pointer finger hovering above his belly. I do not touch his brass highway lanes but I am touching the air they are touching and he is looking.
His eyes are siding on too wide and I know it is because he is not sure what this is. If I were less pretty it would be weird but I’m not so he is still standing here.
“Uniform,” he says. Chokes it out and keeps his lips parted. I stare at the inside of his mouth and wait for him to say more. My finger strokes a button. “Mandatory,” he finishes, right as my index goes in for the double tap.
He doesn’t initiate anything else; he also doesn’t take ownership of his still open mouth. Instead he watches me take my hand back and he watches me as I take a loop around the dining cart that he has rolled in.
Our dinner looks good.
There’s a receipt tucked in underneath the edge of the plate. Turns out this steak costs thirteen dollars too.
I tell the man about a steak I once ate in Oslo and how it was smothered in this pepper sauce and how the restaurant had taxidermy buffalo heads and belt buckles on the wall and the steak was supposed to taste like here and the place was supposed to remind me of here but instead it just tasted like there and felt like there and never once did I have some flash of a moment that made me think I was home. I look at the knife that came with the steak, touch the handle a bit, but only with one finger, and when I look back up the waiter his face tells me he is having all sorts of fucked up thoughts about it.
This man has said three words to me. He is standing in the middle of my room with his parted mouth and his yes uniform mandatory, and so I know he is a malleable man and he is married to a malleable woman. I am sure of it. He goes home in the evenings and pushes brass buttons out of waxy threaded loops, takes the yes uniform mandatory coat off and feels loose. His insides are held tight all day, compressed in and solid-like and I wonder if the letting out of all that flesh feels like something scary. If his insides go slippery without their restraints and if he watches himself leak out and knows the job it will be to stuff himself back in come morning. Or maybe his wife has cool hands that hold his torso in, that wrap firmly and tightly and feel good. I could be her. I could coax this man, this man with the fish mouth and the horse legs into removing his coat and showing me what happens. I could try my hands on his stomach and chest and neck and I too could be made to mold. He and I will be easy hands and easy insides and parted lips only.
We will smile Eve’s happy smile and Eve will recognize me then. My sister will say how she likes these new hands of mine. She will say the compliments to my hands and insides and lips because I won’t be face or brain or thirteen months of damaged heart. She will shout it over and over, “I recognize you now! I like you now!” But my hands won’t be able to hear that, will not be able to comprehend it so nothing will change and then I will be stuck with this man who is stuck in this hotel and is having scary thoughts about what I am planning to do with my knife. I give him a tip and ask him to leave.
The knife that has come with the steak is more plastic handle than serrated steel. But when I hold it flat and on my palm gravity pitches it forward so it flips tip first into the carpet. I know that it is a good and heavy blade. I drop down next to it, pull my satchel onto my lap and carve out a hole in the bottom corner of my leather bag. It’s not easy this task, but soon I’ve got the stabbing motion down and the shiny leather is now streaked with white scuff marks. There is a silver dollar sized gap exactly where the seams meet.
I pack everything up. I leave some money for house keeping.
The floor seems too casual so I gather Mother and move to the center of the bed.
I pull my legs up so they are close to my heart and my feet are flat and my stomach has a wall of other body parts protecting it and making me feel safe. Mother molds herself to the ridges of my kneecaps.
“This next part isn’t going to hurt,” I tell her as I grip the bottom corners of the Ziploc, push in a bit so she bunches up and is right at eye-level.
Maybe Dad was right and maybe it isn’t Mother and it isn’t me but me and Mother, together.
The ridges of my spine carry only a hint of coldness.
Eve’s movie version of this is Mother leaning over a cloud looking at me, crying big and round and really blue tears at the idea of this still being a thing. Well, yeah, no shit. Mother has always been a contributor, participant, provoker of who I am and if Mother didn’t want to forever be the contributor participant provoker then Mother shouldn’t have ended herself.
I have tried so hard to remember the last thing Mother said to me when she still had things like hands insides lips. I can’t. There are whole books that list the last things people have said before they died, but they are for kings and inventors and people about to be lethally injected. They’ve got record of the last words they said to their kids and their wives, their physicians, nemesis and some to a whirl of descending light that was probably their god. I have no way of knowing Mother’s. But she was always polite and would have said thank you when she went through the Starbuck’s drive-thru so that was probably it and that’s a shitty one.
We’re so close, Mother and I, sitting like this with my hands holding her and like always it is mostly nice. I tell her that she doesn’t have to leave, that if she decides to stay I will take her with me always. We will go back to Croatia. We will dip our hands into every water source. We will trace the rivers until we end up at ocean. We will swim in every large body of water that the world offers. Whatever she wants, we will do it. We will dive headfirst into the Adriatic Sea and we will take the steak knife with us and spend our days butchering green mermaids. We will sell their hides and never own cars and we will color Christmas with whatever shade we want. I press my forehead right into her, feel the sandbar mold and make room even as I squeeze my hand over the tear in her Ziploc. I shift my face down and bury my nose deep. It is the only version of her lap that I know and it is happening on an ugly comforter in a town where it only takes thirteen dollars to ruin something so completely.
Mother tells me this is not the end, that it is okay to be affected and affected still. I tell her how there is so much I am still wanting to do in this world. I tell her how I’d like for her to bear witness to it if she so chooses. I cry a bit because no shit, this is emotional.
We have to leave so I stand up, wrap the steak in the front page of the newspaper that was delivered to my room earlier and pull my suitcase to the door. I pick Mother up from the bed with both hands and with one final squeeze I tip her over and set her zipper side down inside my leather bag. Holding my wrapped meat in front of me, my satchel on one shoulder and suitcase in the other, I head for the elevator and wait to be delivered to the lobby.
I take my first bite as I stand outside and wait for the cab. I take smaller bites of it on the way to the airport. I fold the newspaper down a bit and out of the way while the driver pulls my suitcase out. “Thank you,” I say to him and my voice sounds just like Mother’s. I adjust my leather satchel, walk inside and take some bigger bites while I wait in line at security. I chew on the fat while I am patted down. “Thank you, thank you,” I tell them all. I finish it after I’ve boarded, am crumbling the headlines and stuffing them into the pocket of the seat in front of me while the safety video plays. I’ve got steak juice on my hands when the plane takes off.
Maybe it was⎯ have a good day at camp, sweetheart. Or maybe⎯ I’m going to ruin you, dear. Or even⎯ this is my brain and that’s the end of it.
I request a napkin. “Thank you so much.”
The overhead lights dim soon after and passengers all over the plane are reaching up to flick them off completely. It is in the almost darkness that I gather enough of my own insides together to pull my bag onto my lap.
To reach in with both hands is like wanting too much of something so I slip just one hand, my left, into the satchel until I feel plastic. I have touched these layers of Ziploc before. I’ve done it without thought and without care. It is what is inside that is something to know, but now, inside this flying beast where it is mostly quiet and mostly dark and surrounded by strangers, the plastic itself means something too. It contains her, holds her together, makes her this thing that I can look at and recognize and pull towards me and push away and zip into my luggage and stroke and punch and grip and she is one solid mass that always feels heavy and is not lacking, is not full of iced tea, is not parked in a thirty minute zone, and is everything, everything I thought Mothers should be.
My fingers stroke the entire length and width of the Ziploc and not once do I encounter her.
When I run my palm along the entire perimeter of the bag I come up empty. It cost her exactly thirteen dollars to end it and it seems impossible that something so vast and something with so much weight on my life could be done with less than a single month’s allowance. My finger pokes through the rip of the Ziploc and then straight through to the shredded leather until I can see the pink of my fingertip. I am no longer into onto beneath. It is warm down here, terrifying but warm.
Mother, I whisper, chant it over and over and it is the only voice in this whole big sea of sleeping humans. Mother, I say, my chest going loose and my insides wishing desperately for a double-breasted coat. I wonder where she landed. How much of her is in the elevator, on the sidewalk, in that cab, or even at my feet as they press into the belly of this plane. Was there a moment, plastic cup pressed to her lips and the hard edges of pills filling up her throat, where she thought this choice⎯ so complete in its absoluteness⎯ was exactly wrong? I have no way of knowing. My back is turned and Mother no longer exists.
Jac Smith is from Long Beach, California. She received a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach. She was a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Recently she quit her job, left civilization and moved to the small mountain town of Green Valley Lake where she is pursuing writing.